AT&T’S Slow Road to Fast Broadband

AT&T is planning for faster wireless, but also wants to push its wireline networks to 80 Mbps downstream this summer in a trial using esoteric copper technologies such as vectoring, pair bonding and spectrum management. In an interview with me yesterday, John Stankey, president and CEO of AT&T Operations, explained how the carrier is testing faster speeds on its fiber-to-the node network by upgrading to VDSL2 technology and hinted at AT&T’s (s T) ability and willingness to extend fiber closer to the customer’s home as demand rises. But it most assuredly isn’t ready to hop on the fiber-to-the-home bandwagon, not is it convinced its customers need or want the 100 Mbps broadband by 2020 that the FCC is seeking.

AT&T currently offers 24 Mbps down and 3 Mbps upstream as its top U-verse service tier, which is looking sloth-like when compared with the DOCSIS 3.0 being rolled out by its cable competitors and the fiber-to-the-home efforts of Verizon (s vz). Even Qwest (s q) is boosting speeds to 40/20 Mbps in some areas, although there are still plenty of people who would love U-verse speeds. Then there’s the looming specter of the National Broadband Plan, which includes the goal of offering 100 Mbps speeds to 100 million homes by 2020. I asked Stankey if AT&T could meet that goal using its fiber-to-the-node technology, which relies on copper from a neighborhood box to connect to the customer’s home.

But Stankey was less focused on AT&T’s ability to meet the goal than on disparaging the goal itself. “I don’t know what informed the FCC that [100 Mbps to 100 million homes] was the right answer,” he said. “We’ve been doing wired broadband for 10 years and we have meaningful curves in terms of speeds and demand that are statistically accurate and predictable.” Based on those curves Stankey said AT&T knows exactly how much data and throughput are needed as opposed to choosing a “nice round number” to shoot for.

“We feel comfortable…based on how we deploy, that we can match the needs of the customer,” Stankey said. For example, Stankey said that AT&T could extend fiber further along the local copper loop and then reduce the number of homes served by each neighborhood cabinet and shorten the distance bits have to travel over the last-mile copper. Reducing the distance is a key element when it come to improving the quality of signals and boosting speeds — the further out one is on the local loop, the slower the speeds are.

As for the upstream capabilities, Stankey wouldn’t say what AT&T might offer, nor what it theoretically could offer using the bonding, vectoring and spectrum management. “We’re evaluating the upstream characteristics and we might take [the 80 Mbps speeds] down to lower levels to offer more upstream,” Stankey said. The trials will last through the end of the summer.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Photo Monkey

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