Dane Jasper reaches between the seats of his Tesla and pulls out an AT&T mailer offering broadband service for $20 a month. “Turn it over and look at the fine print,” he says. The $20 price is a one-year teaser rate. A $99 installation fee may apply. A $180 early termination fee definitely will. AT&T caps the plan at 250 gigabytes of data per month, and it doesn’t run faster than 0.8 megabits per second, less than one-fourth as fast as the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband.
For AT&T, Jasper’s a long shot. He’s the chief executive officer of Sonic.net, an Internet service provider based in Sonoma County, Calif., that competes with AT&T in the San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles metropolitan areas. It plans to expand further, using gigabits-per-second fiber-optic cable where possible. A quiet, local player for most of its two decades, Sonic has built up a bit of a halo lately as the good ISP, a purveyor of cheap, fast connectivity that caters to tech geeks, is friendly with Google and Netflix, and fought a government court order demanding data on a customer who supported WikiLeaks. “Dane’s a geek,” says privacy researcher and activist Christopher Soghoian. “He’s one of us.”