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AT&T looks to bring super-fast Internet to Charlotte

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There’s an Internet arms race brewing in Charlotte: AT&T said Monday that it’s looking to bring an ultra-fast fiber data network to the city, just months after Google said it was considering Charlotte for an expansion of its fiber Internet service.

AT&T said Charlotte, Gastonia and Huntersville are being considered for its “GigaPower” service, along with 20 other major metropolitan areas that include Chicago, Dallas and San Francisco. Experts say the speed rush offers cities the chance to get access to the 21st-century equivalent of a highway or railroad: infrastructure critical to business.

“This is a land grab between AT&T and Google,” said Chris Hare, founder of the North Carolina-based technology consulting firm nTeTe Group. “It’s much like cable TV and satellite TV a few years ago.”

The speeds Google and AT&T are looking to install would bring the Internet into homes and businesses up to 100 times faster than current speeds – an important consideration when more and more business involves transferring huge amounts of data or cloud computing.

But AT&T doesn’t intend to give its service to Charlotte without some help from the city. Like Google, AT&T said it plans to ask Charlotte for special consideration.

“We’re going to reach out to leaders,” said AT&T spokesman Josh Gelinas. AT&T could start construction this year and roll out the new, fast networks soon after, he said. “We’ll be going where there are receptive public policies.”

Gelinas didn’t detail exactly what AT&T plans to ask of Charlotte. But in Durham, where AT&T said earlier this month it wants to install a super high-speed network, news reports show AT&T has asked the city for speedy regulatory approvals and inspections.

Google has asked Charlotte for similar assurances, including that its permit requests will be handled quickly and that the company will be able to access existing infrastructure such as utility poles.

Gelinas said AT&T has contacted city officials. Charlotte spokesman Keith Richardson couldn’t be reached Monday.

Google officials have said they want to make traditional service providers such as AT&T offer faster speeds. But Gelinas said Google Fiber’s expansion didn’t play a role in AT&T’s plans.

“It was not spurred on in any way by Google,” he said. “This is a service our customers want.”

AT&T rolled out its first GigaPower fiber network in Austin, Texas, in December. The company announced earlier this month that it plans to expand the service to Winston-Salem and the Raleigh-Durham areas.

Google has ultra-high-speed fiber networks in Provo, Utah, and Kansas City and is building a network in Austin. In addition to Charlotte, several of the other metropolitan regions Google is considering for its fiber network overlap with AT&T: the Raleigh-Durham area, Nashville, Tenn., San Jose, Calif., San Antonio and Atlanta.

In the Charlotte region, other companies also are promising to speed up the way we go online. RST Global, a Shelby-based firm, said last month that it plans to roll out a network across North Carolina offering speeds up to 100 gigabits per second. And Comporium said in February it plans to build a gigabit network in Rock Hill.

A data-mining battle

Broadband Internet speeds typically range from 10 to 20 megabits per second. Google Fiber and AT&T claim to offer speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second – or 1,000 megabits.

To those who remember the staticky buzz of a telephone modem connection and the glacial pace of downloading songs – sometimes an hour or more in the heyday of Napster – the speeds Google and AT&T are throwing around now sound science fiction-fast.

AT&T said at its proposed speeds, users will be able to download a high-definition movie in 36 seconds, a television show in 3 seconds and 25 songs in one second.

Both AT&T and Google’s networks will require major infrastructure upgrades. In addition to installing fiber-optic cables throughout the city, they also will require fiber connections into individual consumers’ homes.

The new high-speed fiber networks promise to pit disparate companies against one another: a search and advertising company vs. what was formerly just a phone service provider, in the case of Google and AT&T.

“It’s no longer about what type of data it is that’s coming into your home. It’s all about who owns that cable,” Hare said. The possibilities for selling more to consumers through their data connections are only increasing as more devices use more data, he said.

“Whoever is in charge of your data knows what you’re going to do before you do,” he said. “The faster they can get you data, the faster they can get you TV, the faster they can get you advertising. ... This is all about data mining, big data, the analytics.”

Hare pointed to Nest, the smart thermostat company Google recently purchased for $3.2 billion, as another example of a data-dependent, Internet-connected device that Google will be able to install in consumers’ homes and learn more about their habits.

AT&T now offers home security systems – a data-dependent, Internet-connected service. For both companies, as their products depend on increasingly fast data transmission, owning the fiber that data flow through offers an advantage.

“Everything that is around us is connected to data of some sort,” Hare said. “The companies that are going to be the most successful going forward are those that can figure out how to harness that.”

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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