Comcast blazes its own trail to a superfast Internet future

The nation's largest broadband provider heeds Google's call to make ultrahigh-speed broadband available to the masses. Now it just needs to work out a few details.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

Comcast wants to sell Internet service that's so fast you could download the high-definition version of "The Terminator" in roughly half a minute.

Or you could simultaneously stream all five "Terminator" movies -- yeah, there are five -- without a stutter.


Comcast's new service will send high volumes of data at speeds of 1 gigabit per second.

Andrew Brookes/Corbis

The nation's largest Internet service provider said Tuesday that it was looking to deliver so-called gigabit service, or connections of 1 gigabit per second, in five cities this year. The speed is between 50 and 100 times faster than the average broadband connection.

Comcast hopes to roll out the service in its 40-state territory with the potential to reach 55 million customers within the next two years.

The jump to gigabit speeds marks a departure from the broadband industry's history of offering gradual speed increases over time, even when its technology is capable of delivering more. Now you're going to see big jumps ahead.

That's because Google has been nudging the existing players to get serious with speed.

Five years ago, Google launched its Fiber service in Kansas City. Then AT&T began offering a full a 1Gbps connection in Austin in 2014.

Two of Comcast's initial gigabit cities, Atlanta and Nashville, are cities targeted by AT&T and Google. Chicago and Miami, which are on Comcast's trial list, are cities where AT&T already offers gigabit.

The message is clear: Competition is working.

"It's no coincidence that the first cities Comcast is going into are where Google and AT&T are building networks," said Blair Levin, who led the Obama administration's efforts to write the National Broadband Plan, back in 2010. Since then, Blair, through his organization Gig.U, has worked to foster partnerships between communities and private industries to accelerate deployment of gigabit broadband.

Comcast's entry into the world of gigabit speeds is a big deal because the company will use its existing cable infrastructure rather than laying down new fiber-0ptic lines like Google or AT&T. That means Comcast can roll out its service to more people faster and cheaper.

It was back in 2011 that Comcast CEO Brian Roberts first demonstrated that the older infrastructure was capable of delivering speeds of 1Gbps. But industry executives were skeptical that consumers would want such a service, and many still are.

"Do I believe there is a customer need in 2016, beyond a very niche group of individuals, to have a gigabit?" Eric Schaefer, senior vice president for Comcast's data and mobility service, asked in an interview Tuesday. "Absolutely not. But I think it's important to have the capability and to show it can be done over our co-ax network."

But how much will it cost?

Comcast hasn't offered many details on the new service, leaving many unanswered questions.

The company hasn't disclosed how much the service will cost, except to say it will be less than its GigPro service, which runs $299 a month and offers 2Gbps downloads over an all-fiber network.

Comcast charges about $80 a month for a 75 megabit per second connection, already more expensive than gigabit service from Google or AT&T, both which charge $70.

Another question is what the upload speed will be on the service. Because Google and AT&T use fiber, upload and download speeds are the same. On a cable network, uploads and downloads are generally different. For instance, the current upload speed on a 75Mbps service from Comcast is 5Mbps to 10Mbps, depending on the market. Upload speeds affect how quickly you can upload videos, music and other files to a cloud-based storage network.

Experts like Levin, who have been encouraging the deployment of faster broadband, are happy about Comcast's announcement, as it provides a way to get faster Internet to more people.

"It's great that Comcast is doing this," Levin said. "But we're not in the end zone yet."