AT&T is laying fiber in our little patch of southern Durham County and wasting no time doing it. Yellow and orange paint markers are all over Falconbridge, or at least that part of it not torn up by PSNC Energy for a new pipeline.
Warpspeed Internet is the promise of the three major providers in this area, and by warpspeed I mean up to 1 gigabit per second. If you want fast, this is it: You can download a high-def movie in 36 seconds.
For us old-timers who thought 2,400 bits per second was hot stuff in the early 1990s, the prospect of gigabit service – that’s a billion bits per second, is downright giga-diddy. And for only $70 month from AT&T and rival Google Fiber.
For the moment, AT&T Gigapower is the only player in Durham with superspeed downloads. Google says its coming, but AT&T is moving so fast that Google might end up eating the former’s dust. Time Warner Cable, the original kid on the block, is still wed for the most part to slower copper-based coaxial cable – but I wouldn’t count TWC out just yet.
So, you ask, where’s the catch in AT&T’s promise of $70-a-month gigabit service? You know there has to be one.
And, of course, there is.
When you read the fine print with a good magnifying glass, you’ll see the $70 figure itself is the catch.
When you sign up for Gigapower, you’re giving up any semblance of online privacy to AT&T. The carrier will collect all manner of information about you, literally keystroke by keystroke, for marketing-targeted advertising.
And from what I read, there’s little if anything you can do about it. Going incognito on your browser won’t protect you, nor apparently will much more sophisticated means such as a virtual private network. What AT&T wants, AT&T gets.
For many users, surrendering privacy for $70 a month will seem worth it when they learn at AT&T will restore that privacy for another $29 a month. That’s right – if you insist on privacy, you’ll have to pay for it.
None of this should be taken as an indictment of AT&T, which is on record as promising to mind its manners. But it’s unsettling nonetheless that AT&T is going beyond Google, the acknowledged master of data mining, in what it collects about the browsing habits of its customers.
Google Fiber is not without sin, and neither is Time Warner when it comes to data mining. Yet neither is as deep into the mother lode as AT&T.
The reason isn’t entirely AT&T’s fault. The telecom giant is spending enormous sums, by one estimate $130 billion, in a race against Google to wire America with fiber. That money comes from a lot of sources, and the ad-subsidized Gigapower is but one of them.
It didn’t have to be this way.
But it became inevitable when the Federal Communications Commission, under enormous pressure from the White House, voted 3-2 to classify the Internet as a Title II common carrier for enforcement of net neutrality.
This was a classic intervention by the administrative state in the telecom market, a costly one for the very people whose interests it’s supposed to protect. Title II designation put the Internet (or Obamanet, as some now call it) on the same level as telephone service governed by 1930s-era rules.
AT&T and other telecoms that provide the backbone of the Internet cannot sell “fast lanes” to Netflix (which consumes a third of Internet bandwidth at night) and other content providers. All Internet traffic is therefore equal – no play for pay.
So, if you cherish your privacy and are willing to put an extra 29 bucks a month into AT&T’s till, that’s why you have to do it. You’re making up for revenue that AT&T would otherwise glean from fast lanes.
The future of television, telephone and data services is the Internet. Unless and until the courts or a future administration unshackles the Internet, it cannot enjoy the robust freedom from government’s heavy hand that made it a world-changer in less than 20 years.
Why mess with success?
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.