Why Faster Internet Speeds Don’t Solve Fiber’s Biggest Problem

Speed without accessibility

Key Takeaways

  • AT&T plans to upgrade the speeds offered in its two lowest tier fiber internet plans, bringing the cheapest plan’s speeds to 300 Mbps up and down.
  • While experts praise the changes, they say it does nothing to fix the main problems with fiber right now, which is overall availability.
  • Experts believe that faster speeds could lead to more adoption in fiber-accessible areas, which could help push companies like AT&T to focus more on expanding current fiber networks.
Installation of fiber optic cable.

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Recent changes to AT&T’s fiber internet plans are a step in the right direction but ultimately do nothing to fix the real problem with fiber right now: availability.

AT&T recently announced changes to its fiber internet plans, offering faster download and upload speeds to two of its plans. The change brings the company’s cheapest fiber plan up to 300 Mbps, a 200 Mbps increase over its original speeds.

That’s no small boost by any means, but it doesn’t address the fact that two-thirds of AT&T’s customer base is still without fiber access.

"Fiber is the fastest and most reliable internet you can get, so if you can get a sweet deal like this, then yeah, that's awesome," Peter Holsin, an internet expert at HighSpeedInternet, told us in an email. 

"The catch is that fiber internet is the least available type of internet you can get—not nearly as ubiquitous as cable and DSL internet. So only a minority of internet users will actually benefit from this bonus."

Promises of Expansion

The most significant promise facing fiber expansion isn’t necessarily pricing. While a lot is being done right now to make internet plans more affordable as a whole, fiber itself faces a much bigger problem. Most customers just don’t have access to it.

The most recent broadband report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reports that only 30.26 percent of AT&T customers have access to fiber internet with speeds of 250 Mbps down or greater.

"If fiber becomes more accessible to rural customers or internet users in small towns, then that could do a lot to bridge the country's drastic 'digital divide.'"

Furthermore, AT&T’s current fiber expansion plans are slow going, with the company only promising fiber support for 3 million more residential and commercial customers in 2021.

"AT&T is making this big announcement while its two main rivals in the cellular space—T-Mobile and Verizon—are making big strides towards building up 5G networks and 5G home internet options," Holsin explained. 

While T-Mobile’s push into the home internet world has been a bit more measured—striving to offer service to 7-8 million customers by 2025—Verizon’s push has been much more significant.

The company plans to offer home internet speeds of up to 300 Mbps to 100 million additional customers within the next 12 months. 

There are some differences here. AT&T is working on expanding a wire-based network. At the same time, T-Mobile and Verizon have gone with a fixed-wireless route, which essentially piggybacks off their mobile networks to offer home internet service.

The differences are still notable, though, as AT&T has purposefully chosen not to focus on fixed-wireless for home coverage.

Fuel on the Fire

Despite the slow rollout, Tyler Cooper, EIC of BroadbandNow says that the push for better speeds is a good sign and that it will hopefully lead to more movement to get fiber in the hands of even more customers. 

"Pushing existing infrastructure to new heights is always a good thing, and fiber certainly provides room to grow," Cooper told us in an email.

A teen holding a router while checking Wi-Fi connection speeds on a smartphone.

Maskot / Getty Images

"AT&T now has some of the most affordable internet plans at 300 Mbps or above in the nation. This also puts more pressure on other fiber networks to increase speeds for their customers, which might encourage further adoption."

If more customers with access to fiber continue to adopt the new plans that AT&T is offering, it could lead to the company further focusing its priorities on the expansion of wired connections.

Since AT&T already has much of the fiber infrastructure in place—the company used fiber wire to create the main network connections within its ADSL network—it only needs to finish placing fiber for the last mile to bring it to many additional customers.

"AT&T seems to be doing more; it’s just a question of how long it will take for AT&T's fiber internet to be built up and made accessible to more customers," Holsin told us.

"If fiber becomes more accessible to rural customers or internet users in small towns, then that could do a lot to bridge the country's drastic 'digital divide.'"

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