Real Competition From Google Or Window-Dressing For FCC? Time Warner Cable Improves Speeds In Austin

Here are two facts: Google Fiber is coming to Austin, and Time Warner Cable is being bought by Comcast. The question is: Which one of these two facts is the cause for TWC’s significantly ramped-up service in the Texas capital?

GigaOm’s Stacey Higginbotham reports that TWC service in Austin, which had previously maxed out at 50 Mbps, will begin offering tiers with speeds up to 300 Mbps.

It appears that all of TWC’s current tiers are being upgraded without a price change for subscribers. At the lowest end, users with 2 Mbps connections will get jacked up to 3 Mbps (can you feel the burn!?), while 3 Mb customers will speeds more than triple to 10 Mb. The Standard 15 Mb tier gets bumped up to the current max of 50 Mb, 20 Mb increases all the way to 100 Mb, and the “Extreme” tier goes from its current 30 Mb to 200 Mb.

So what’s behind this decision?

Obviously there is the specter of Google Fiber and its promise of gigabit Internet service for about the same as TWC customers are paying for their lesser service now. Bumping speeds up to 50 Mbps and faster without a price change could keep customers from jumping ship.

AT&T has also announced plans to bring fiber service to Austin, meaning consumers may actually have a bit of choice (assuming all three companies build out their networks to include as many residents as possible).

Is this the competition consumers have longed for? Multiple options for providers, each trying to offer faster service at competitive rates. That’s all most cable subscribers could reasonably ask for.

But then there’s the cynical voice looking askance at these service improvements and wondering if there is an ulterior motive. Is TWC (and, by extension, Comcast) using Austin as window-dressing to woo regulators?

It would be incredibly easy for the merger partners to make these improvements in Austin so they can say to the FCC and the Justice Dept., “Look! Just like we said, there is competition in the cable market! See?”

Such proactive regulatory wrinkle-smoothing is nothing new to Comcast. In its announcement of the deal to buy TWC, Comcast said it was already planning to divest the merged companies of some 3 million customers. That’s the kind of thing many merger partners would not offer until being asked to shed subscribers or risk having the deal killed.

And in Comcast’s all-too-easy acquisition of NBC Universal, Kabletown execs appeased regulators by creating “Comcast Essentials,” which is supposed to make Internet access affordable for lower-income families with kids in school, but which has been criticized as just a fresh coat of paint on Comcast’s rusting core.

But one city, no matter how good the food and music are, does not a competitive marketplace make, as most Americans still have virtually no choice when it comes to cable TV and broadband ISPs.

Regardless of TWC’s motives, it’s good to know that at least the good people of Austin — Hey Dan and SueAnn! — should soon have some choices about where they get their high-speed Internet service from.