This is what a competitive broadband market looks like

February 11

Google Fiber is a Lamborghini priced like a Camry, according to Blair Levin. Now even local businesses are competing on that basis. (Guzmán Lozano)

When Google said it was going to bring its high-speed fiber optic service to Austin, it probably didn't expect to touch off a race to switch on the cheapest, fastest Internet service around. But within a year of announcing the move, AT&T followed suit. And now a third company has beaten them both.

Grande Communications, a 10-year-old provider based a half hour away in San Marcos, Tex., is rolling out full gigabit fiber to seven neighborhoods in west Austin next week. Gigabit service customers will benefit from speeds up to 100 times the national average. The company's service won't require a contract, doesn't impose data caps and vows to obey net neutrality principles. At $65 a month, it'll be more affordable than either Google or AT&T's offerings — and it'll come with fewer strings attached.

By the time Grande unveils the faster service, the larger businesses will still be working to finish their infrastructure rollout. Even though its gigabit service isn't ready yet, AT&T is encouraging Austinites to commit early for speeds of up to 300 Mbps (still pretty zippy). Those GigaPower subscribers will be automatically upgraded to gigabit speeds once AT&T has completed its construction later this year. It'll cost $99 a month for plain, vanilla service, or $70 a month if you agree to let AT&T monitor your Web behavior so it can send you targeted advertising.

Meanwhile, Google hasn't announced a price for Austin. But judging from its other rollouts in Kansas City, Kan., and Provo, Utah, gigabit service is expected to cost $70 a month as well, on top of a one-time $30 construction fee.

Grande's entry suggests it isn't only large, national businesses that can compete when it comes to offering high-speed broadband. Austin is fast becoming the site of an arms race among broadband providers at a time when many U.S. communities are dominated by one or perhaps two companies. But there's a good reason for that: The city is already known for its forward thinking. Thanks in part to conferences like SXSW, university students and big health-care centers, Austin has become "a mecca for creative and entrepreneurial people," according to Google. That tech-savvy culture makes the high cost of investing in Austin worth it to Internet providers, despite having to lay down all-new fiber themselves.

As the second city to get Google Fiber, Austin has also become a wake-up call for companies fearful of being threatened by the search giant. When I spoke with Blair Levin, a telecom lawyer who was instrumental in drafting the government's national broadband plan, in September, he said that some initially thought Google Fiber was going to be a premium product. They were wrong.

"What Google did instead was say, 'We're going to build you a Lamborghini, but price it at the same price as a Camry,'" said Levin. "And that's what's so disruptive about it."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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