AT&T announced recently that it was unilaterally increasing the speeds for fiber customers. Customers that had the 100 Mbps service have been bumped to 300 Mbps. Customers with 300 Mbps are being bumped to 500 Mbps. AT&T continues to offer the gigabit tier.
It’s clear why the company made the change because cable companies are doing the same thing. In December 2020, Charter increased its starting speed to 200 Mbps. Comcast increased speeds across the board in February. Its Performance product went from 60 Mbps to 100 Mbps. Performance Pro went from 150 Mbps to 200 Mbps. Blast went from 250 Mbps to 300 Mbps. Extreme went from 400 Mbps to 600 Mbps. In some markets, Comcast increased the top speed from 1 Gbps to 1.2 Gbps.
I’m sure that this latest round of speed increases by the cable companies was prompted by customers voicing dissatisfaction during the pandemic. We’ve learned that it costs little or nothing to increase speeds, except when increasing speed for a customer who has felt throttled. Unfortunately for cable customers, these speed increases aren’t going to bring them what they are hoping for since the complaints during the pandemic were not about download speeds, but upload speeds. I’m guessing the latest round of cable company speed increases didn’t move the meter much for upload speeds.
Fiber customers see a big increase in upload speeds with the AT&T speed increases since the company offers symmetrical broadband on fiber. But it’s unlikely that many homes felt constrained with uploading during the pandemic on the company’s 100 Mbps fiber service.
Cable companies have unilaterally increased speeds many times. If you go back to 2000 you would have found both Charter and Comcast offering 1 Mbps broadband. At that time, the companies were in a real battle with DSL since both technologies offered nearly identical speeds. I can remember when Charter moved from 1 Mbps to 3 Mbps, to 6 Mbps, to 15 Mbps, to 30 Mbps, to 60 Mbps, and to 100 Mbps during the twenty years.
By the time that the cable companies got to 30 Mbps, they were leaving DSL behind, and over time they have annually captured a decent piece of the DSL market. It’s hard to understand, other than price, why somebody would stick with DSL in today’s market.
The pendulum might be swinging back the other direction, at least a bit. AT&T added over 1 million fiber customers in 2021, and you have to think a lot of the additions came from cable customers switching to faster fiber broadband. AT&T has now built fiber to pass 14.5 million homes and businesses and says it’s going to build past 2 million more residential customers and 1 million business customers in 2021.
I have to wonder how much more speed inflation we’ll ever see. At the rate that cable companies have been arbitrarily increasing rates, we can’t be too far from seeing everybody being offered a gigabit.
It’s worth noting that just because a cable company increases speeds that there is no guarantee that a given household will see anything faster. To some degree, the numbers just announced by Comcast and Charter are marketing speeds. There are local constraints in many neighborhood networks that restrict speeds. Some homes will need a new modem to achieve the faster advertised speeds. We can’t forget the drawn-out confrontation between the New York Public Service Commission and Charter over a huge number of homes that still had old modems that couldn’t receive the advertised speeds. Homes were promised 100 Mbps and were getting less than 20 Mbps. The fight got so bad that the State started the process of tossing Charter out of the state.
By contrast, fiber ISPs tend to deliver all or most of the speed they advertise. In speed tests, we usually see speeds on fiber within a few percent of the advertised speeds – and sometimes faster. But I don’t think the cable companies are too worried about AT&T and other fiber providers. At this point, the cable companies collectively probably pass nearly 100 million homes for which they are the only fast broadband alternative.