Race to gigabit Internet service takes off

Four years after the National Broadband Plan, communities and carriers are deploying next-gen infrastructure that will bring gigabit speed Internet to homes, universities, and businesses.

Larry Downes
Larry Downes is an author and project director at the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy. His new book, with Paul Nunes, is “Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation.” Previous books include the best-selling “Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance.”
Larry Downes
5 min read

With the "irrational exuberance" of the early Internet economy, speculators spent billions laying thousands of miles of fiber optic cable for backhaul, expecting Internet use would continue growing at the unprecedented rates of the late 1990s. As part of the great dot com bust of 2000, however, most of the speculators went bust, leaving so-called "dark fiber" to wait for demand to catch up.

That time, it seems, has finally come.

In its third annual report (PDF), Gig.U, a consortium of nearly 40 research universities, reported in the last week that the number of announced and in-process consumer gigabit Internet service offerings has begun to take off. "Scores of American communities, including over a dozen Gig.U communities, are now deeply engaged in deploying of such networks," the report notes.

Since Gig.U's report went to press, AT&T announced plans to bring its U-Verse GigaPower service to Cupertino, Calif. Gig.U Third Annual Report.

Progress on deploying 1Gbps broadband service has proceeded with impressive results since 2010, when the Federal Communications Commission's visionary National Broadband Plan called for gigabit test bed communities offering ultra high-speed Internet connections, at least for anchor institutions including "schools, hospitals and government buildings."

Before the ink had even dried on the FCC report, Google announced plans to take up the challenge, launching a competition to select one community for a fiber-to-the-home service that it called Google Fiber. That competition was won by Kansas City, where Google Fiber is now in operation. (Google Fiber has since expanded to Austin and to Provo, Utah, where it took over a failing municipal fiber service.)

Soon after publication, the plan's chief author, Blair Levin, left the FCC to launch Gig.U. Levin, who had previously served as chief of staff for former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, was convinced that the solution to stubborn broadband access, adoption, and competition problems all lay in promoting what he and Hundt called a "Politics of Abundance."

"History shows that nations always benefit economically from network upgrades," Levin said in an interview with CNET. "But in 2009, investors weren't eager to invest in the next generation. We wanted to find a way to change that."

Gig.U's solution was to organize research universities and their communities, and to create common proposal documents with which to attract gigabit Internet providers. Residents and businesses in university towns, Levin reasoned, were the most likely markets to subscribe to Internet speeds as much as 100 times faster than existing networks offered, making it easier to sell the idea to the private investors who would need to pay for the construction of new fiber-based infrastructure.

Between Google Fiber and Gig.U's highly-visible experiments, according to Levin, a competitive "Game of Gigs" among both communities and broadband providers is now in full swing.

In the last twelve months, the opening move has shifted from communities looking for willing providers to forward-thinking companies, including AT&T, Google, and CenturyLink, taking the initiative in reaching out to cities.

Google Fiber coming soon to these cities (pictures)

See all photos

That shift is in part a response to competitors old and new getting serious about the gigabit game. With the continued growth of Internet-based video services and the imminent arrival of ""="" shortcode="link" asset-type="article" uuid="82160d36-8c86-11e2-b06b-024c619f5c3d" slug="what-is-4k-uhd-next-generation-resolution-explained" link-text="4K or " section="news" title="What is 4K UHD? Next-generation resolution explained" edition="us" data-key="link_bulk_key" api="{"id":"82160d36-8c86-11e2-b06b-024c619f5c3d","slug":"what-is-4k-uhd-next-generation-resolution-explained","contentType":null,"edition":"us","topic":{"slug":"home-entertainment"},"metaData":{"typeTitle":null,"hubTopicPathString":"Tech^Home Entertainment","reviewType":null},"section":"news"}"> programming, advanced tele-health applications, and other high-bandwidth services, providers can more easily make the business case to Wall Street for the substantial investments required.

Among traditional communications providers, AT&T's all-fiber GigaPower has been the most aggressive, with service available or in process in nearly two dozen US cities, a number that may reach as many as a hundred. Last week, the company announced plans to make the service available soon in Cupertino, Calif., the headquarters for Apple and other high-tech companies.

AT&T plans to expand the 1Gbps GigaPower service in up to 100 candidate cities and municipalities across 25 markets nationwide. AT&T

Network providers are also getting unprecedented cooperation from communities and residents. Thanks in part to the work of Gig.U, local governments now see competitive advantage for cities offering the highest-speed Internet services to residents, businesses, and high-tech entrepreneurs.

Following the success of Google's Fiber project in Kansas City, city governments now appreciate the need to throw out obsolete and inefficient regulations and other red tape that raise the cost or make impossible the necessary construction to bring 1Gbps broadband service deeper into neighborhoods.

Levin says the Gig.U effort most likely to serve as a model for other communities is a regional project organized by four universities and six cities in North Carolina. The North Carolina Next Generation Network project received eight responses to its request for proposal earlier this year, ultimately negotiating an agreement with AT&T based largely on Gig.U's model terms.

These initiatives, as well as continued increases in both Internet use and users, are lighting up much of the dark fiber that's been waiting since the 1990s. Network operators are now expanding that fiber to neighborhoods and in some cases directly to homes and office buildings.

But fiber is not the only technology capable of delivering gigabit Internet services. As Levin notes, existing cable infrastructure can also support gigabit speeds through channel bonding, the approach being taken by Cox. Under DOCSIS 3.1, the next-generation standard for cable modems, gigabit speeds will be even easier to implement.

A number of disruptive innovations are also extending the limits of wireless connections. Levin expects gigabit speeds will be available soon using fixed wireless technology and in a future migration to 5G protocols. Wireless gigabit will play a large role in getting high-speed Internet to rural areas, where the cost of laying fiber is prohibitive.

Already, Air.U, an offshoot of Gig.U, has successfully experimented with using unlicensed spectrum between broadcast television stations (so-called "white spaces") to bring "Super Wi-Fi" service to mobile users in West Virginia.

Some traditional carriers were initially skeptical about making the business case for Internet services that would increase capacity by a leap of two orders of magnitude. But that uncertainty is fading rapidly as more Americans adopt broadband technology and join their neighbors in the consuming high-definition video and other bandwidth-intensive applications online.

Indeed, the NBP identified several major categories of applications that would ultimately require much higher Internet speeds, including smart grids, the Internet of Things, distance learning, tele-health, and, of course, new forms of gaming and entertainment. "We've always believed that if you build it, the applications -- and the users -- will come," Levin said.

The plan's authors, however, identified a serious chicken-and-egg problem. Without the new services, there was little incentive for operators to build capacity that was wildly ahead of projected demand. And without the networks, entrepreneurs had no platform on which to develop or deliver the services.

Gig.U was formed to help break that logjam. The results so far have been impressive, but the game is far from over. "We think the years 2015 and 2016 will prove decisive in achieving our goal," the report concludes, "but only if we, and others, spend this year with our foot on the accelerator."