Time Warner Cable adding Internet speed in Kansas City; AT&T promises gigabit in Overland Park

07/31/2014 9:58 AM

07/31/2014 10:13 PM

Everything may not be up to date in Kansas City — mass transit lags, the airport needs work, our diet runs on the fatty side — but the old song increasingly applies to how we go online.

Time Warner Cable announced Thursday it’s cranking up Internet speeds to its customers in the market — without a price increase.

And word broke Thursday that AT&T is on the cusp of a deal to build an ultra-fast network — much like that introduced by Google Inc. in Kansas City two years ago — in Overland Park.

Combined, those developments make the Kansas City market one of a handful in the country where home consumers can buy broadband to burn.

“This will be good for Kansas City because more and more people will have faster speeds,” said Rick Usher, Kansas City’s assistant city manager and point person on broadband issues.

Industry analysts primarily give two reasons why TWC and AT&T want to push up their speeds. First, they could feel threatened by Google Fiber’s emergence in the market. Second, their customers increasingly demand fatter broadband to avoid buffering videos and snail-pace downloads.

“They don’t want to lose customers to either Google or anybody else who may come into the market in the future,” said Larry Gerbrandt, a cable industry analyst for Media Valuation Partners.

For years, the cable and telecom companies dismissed the push from Google and others for dramatically faster uploads and downloads. Customers, they said, had no use for it.

But now, said Gerbrandt and others, the world has changed.

Families want to stream high-definition movies to multiple TVs at a time. People want to work from home, and that can mean shifting massive piles of data from one remote computer to another. And homes now routinely sport multiple electronics constantly snarfing up data from the household Wi-Fi router.

“When somebody’s watching video and it’s buffering, that’s bad for business,” Gerbrandt said. “So now you see the companies investing some money.”

Google kicked off the trend in 2012 when it began selling its connection speeds of up to a gigabit per second run over fiber optic lines strung directly to homes. Google Fiber construction is ongoing, with a pledge to finish installations in Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., this year. Work in the suburbs will follow.

AT&T’s plan would upgrade its existing network by connecting fiber optic lines — thin glass cables that represent the highest capacity in the industry — to homes. It then, like Google, would sell industrial-strength broadband at consumer prices.

AT&T had said it was considering Kansas City as one of the markets where it will sell what it calls Gigapower if it can get the same regulatory treatment as Google. Kansas City officials have said they would do so.

And on Thursday, next week’s Overland Park City Council agenda revealed that city has a memorandum of understanding with AT&T for the company to build a fiber optic network there.

The speeds soon to be offered in Kansas City by TWC may fall short of the Google Fiber gigabit or the AT&T service coming to Overland Park, but they would sprint past what’s available to consumers in most other American cities.

With the upgrade, called TWC Maxx, Internet customers will see their data speeds quicken, the company said, without a price increase. For instance, a home paying for a 15 megabits-per-second connection would see speeds climb to up to 50 megabits for the same cost. A customer with a 100 megabit subscription would get up to 300 megabits per second at the same price.

Upload speeds — the ability to post your video to Facebook, to send family picture albums to the Internet’s cloud of remote storage — would not equal download speeds. But they would get two to five times faster than they are now.

Google Fiber’s gigabit is more than three times as fast as a 300-megabit service like TWC will soon sell. But most American homes get by on 10 to 15 megabits. No consumer applications have risen yet that can make use of anything close to a gigabit (about 1,000 megabits).

With a 300-megabit hook-up, downloading a high-definition move would take just a few minutes and a single home would be able to stream multiple video programs at once without stuttering.

TWC Maxx has already been introduced in Los Angeles and New York City. It will arrive yet this year in Austin, Texas. Along with Kansas City, TWC will deploy the service in Dallas, Hawaii, San Antonio, San Diego and Charlotte, N.C. in 2015.

The company is also going to offer an upgraded DVR with a terabyte of storage capable of holding 150 hours of high-definition programming.

Existing customers who subscribe to TWC’s analog TV service will be switched to a digital signals. For older television sets, that will require new equipment to convert the signal. Company spokesman Michael Pedelty said that in other markets, TWC offered digital converters free for a period of time and expected to do the same in Kansas City.

He also said work to improve the Internet speeds will take place largely on the company’s utility poles and pedestals. It will not require new lines strung directly to homes. Google Fiber, by contrast, is a major construction project that has generated some complaints about damage to yards, gas line breaks and other disruptions.

The relative ease of the TWC upgrade — avoiding the cost and disruption of connecting new cables to homes — also underscores the limitations of the company’s strategy.

While its uploads will quicken, they’ll still lag those on Google Fiber and AT&T’s Gigapower. That means its connections won’t be as attractive to online gamers as a fiber optic line. Two-way high-definition video conferencing might still have pauses or produce images that halt and skip when relying on copper lines.

“The Achilles’ heel is that uploads are still very cramped,” said Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School who specializes in telecommunications policy.

She’s an outspoken advocate for the fiber-from-start-to-finish system being built by Google. She said it essentially future-proofs a community’s Internet lifeline because its capacity will grow with ever better electronics.

But Steve Effros, once head of the Cable Telecommunications Association and now a consultant, sees the push for that ulta-broadband as “a success of the Google p.r. machine.”

“As with everything else, once the impression is given, everybody does it,” he said.

But Effros argues engineers are squeezing ever more broadband out of their existing cable lines. That infrastructure will be able to handle the needs of all but the data hungriest home users for years to come, he said.

Even though TWC’s speedier connections will still trail some local competition, they’ll help put the typical Internet hook-up in the Kansas City market well ahead of the vast majority of places in the United States.

That, say some in Kansas City, is remaking Kansas City as a place where people can more easily work from home or more practically start up a tech venture from a garage.

KC Digital Drive, a group formed to take advantage of the area’s improving Internet infrastructure, has looked at changes in the community and found more tech entrepreneurs working from home. They did so partly because their home Internet was faster than many office buildings.

“We saw entrepreneurs doing things differently,” said Aaron Deacon, the group’s managing director. “This makes a difference.”

To reach Scott Canon, call 816-234-4754 or send email to scanon@kcstar.com.

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