AT&T promises gigabit speeds in Leawood after Google Fiber backs out


AT&T plans to sell Internet speeds of 1 gigabit a second — broadband that until recently was available only to large, institutional customers — to home customers in Leawood.

The AT&T proposal, expected to win Leawood City Council approval Monday night, comes on the heels of Google Fiber last week withdrawing its promise to peddle similarly fast home Internet hookups in the suburb. Google appears to have been frustrated at not being able to string its cables on existing utility poles.

Google has publicly been vague about why it pulled out, saying only that the time and expense needed to build in Leawood were more than it expected.

It had cut a deal with the city more than a year ago. City officials say they are barred by Leawood’s agreement with Google from talking about why the deal went sour.

But in responding to an open-records request from The Star, the city released a letter from Google dated July 24 saying that it was pulling out of Leawood. Google waited three more months to tell potential customers in the city who had signed up for service that it wouldn’t build to their homes.

Google has stressed to potential markets where it might expand — communities still waiting to hear if Google Fiber will be sold there — that easy access to utility poles and underground cable conduit are key to keeping its costs down. It’s also made clear that it will only build its network in cities that clear away the usual regulatory barriers on construction projects.

In its July letter to Leawood City Administrator Scott Lambers, then-Google Fiber manager Kevin Lo wrote that the city’s “prohibition on new market entrants using existing aerial infrastructure” — utility poles — “is a significant barrier to the construction of a new network.”

Lo told the city that forcing Google to string all of its lines underground, particularly when utility poles already existed, “wouldn’t be practical or efficient.”

Meantime, AT&T now has a tentative deal with Leawood to upgrade it U-verse service to what the telecommunications giant calls Gigapower.

Unlike Google, AT&T does not need to build its network from scratch. In areas served under its U-verse product, the company already has high-capacity data cables running into neighborhood hubs. It needs only to run fiber-optic lines from those hubs into homes, what the industry refers to as the pricey “last mile,” to make super-speed connections possible.

AT&T has already leapfrogged Google Fiber — seen for years as groundbreaking in the way it brought industrial-strength broadband to residential customers — in one market. Years after Google promised the service in Austin, Texas, and before it’s begun to light up service, AT&T has begun selling super-fast speeds in the Lone Star capital.

Yet the company is making no promises about the speed of its deployment in Leawood. AT&T is already working on upgrading its network in Overland Park to gigabit speeds — nearly 100 times faster than most home connections.

“Over time,” the company said in a statement Monday, “we plan to expand our ultra-fast network to various communities. Our decision to build in each metro area, city and community depends on a variety of factors such as existing network infrastructure, receptive public policies and a welcoming business investment environment, which is why we appreciate the City of Leawood’s efforts to develop this Memorandum of Understanding.”

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