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Gigabit Internet Just out of Reach in Seattle

by Glenn Fleishman

On 13 December 2012, the City of Seattle announced a breakthrough in a previously shelved plan to bring fiber-based Internet service directly to homes and businesses. A partnership with a private firm, Gigabit Squared, and the University of Washington will make use of a fiber backbone that the city has built over many years to serve its own needs, and which it also leases for Seattle-based county, state, federal, and school uses. A previous plan had called for issuing revenue-backed bonds to fund the effort directly.

But the service won’t initially cover the entire city. Instead, the program will launch in 12 neighborhoods that comprise about 50,000 homes and businesses, and it will be connected directly to individual buildings: this is called fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) or fiber-to-the-premises. It will also use gigabit wireless (over licensed dedicated frequencies) to beam service from within the coverage area using highly directed line-of-sight transmissions to nearby multi-unit buildings, like apartments, as well as businesses. There’s also a vague description of building a high-speed wireless cloud in covered areas, but it’s unclear at the moment if that’s Wi-Fi or something else. All these services have symmetrical throughput, offering the same bits-per-second upstream and downstream.

What’s interesting about this proposal, as far as it’s currently defined, is that it’s not a “triple-play” service that includes broadband, video, and voice. Some firms offer a “quad play” that adds a cell service, too. (The “play” is a baseball metaphor here: a company makes a triple play to “win” in the business.) Most of the city-wide fiber efforts to date, whether with private partners or run by cities or appropriate public utilities, have focused on the triple play.

But the triple-play approach requires provisioning services. Instead of having a big, dumb Internet pipe, video gets a dedicated chunk of broadband, as does voice. These provisioned services are designed to provide quality comparable to having a dedicated wire (like cable TV or a hardwired phone line). That’s no longer necessary when you have gigabit service, though, or even, say, reliable 25 to 50 Mbps service — so long as you aren’t beholden to the specific 24-hour-a-day, multi-channel video offerings of cable and satellite. Voice, too, can be easily replaced with Skype, Vonage, and other services. (For more on smart and dumb pipes, see “New App.net Social Network Aspires Beyond Chat and Ads,” 28 August 2012.)

Seattle’s plan may also be an attempt to avoid too much “disruption” at once. If the gigabit plan doesn’t compete with cable services, Comcast still has a role to play. And, one imagines, Comcast may need to step up its game in terms of pricing and higher-tier bandwidth services, which are offered in some markets. CenturyLink, Seattle’s incumbent phone provider, has no plan for fiber to homes and businesses, and its DSL offerings are slow and erratic. It has a fiber-to-the-neighborhood (FTTN) plan that allegedly brings 12 to 24 Mbps of raw throughput, but it isn’t price-competitive with cable. Landlines are being rapidly shed by households, and DSL speeds have been unable to keep up in practice with cable modems, and can’t hold a candle to fiber.

(For those having trouble keeping track of who is the “phone company” these days, US West was the Baby Bell that served most of Washington State as well as a bunch of the Northwest and a few other scattered states. Qwest acquired US West, and then was itself sucked into CenturyLink. CenturyLink used to be mostly a rural telephone company known as CenturyTel, but it acquired Sprint’s spun-off landline business, Embarq, and then Qwest. Verizon has been urged to sell its landlines, too. Landlines are a dying business.)

You’d think phone companies would be ideally placed to put in fiber to the home, but they all switched their focus to the high growth and profit in mobile voice and broadband. AT&T has its U-Verse FTTN, which gets decent reviews, but has only 7 million broadband subscribers (out of about 30 million locations to which it’s available) in AT&T’s vast service area, and it isn’t growing. The firm’s CEO just said that it’s more or less done building out the offering. Verizon’s FTTH service, FiOS, could carry gigabit, but doesn’t. And FiOS’s 300 Mbps down/65 Mbps up offering costs $210 per month, far higher than the gigabit services in cities that have already deployed FTTH. Verizon has also more or less said it won’t build out more FTTH, too, with only about 3 million customers taking the service of 15 million to whom it is available.

The joy of gigabit Internet is unfettered access, of course, but it’s not necessarily about today’s Internet. As I wrote recently in the Economist, citing Cyrus Farivar’s Ars Technica coverage, most Web sites and services currently either can’t keep up with gigabit connections or simply don’t have anything to fill the pipe. If you need only a few Mbps to get the best possible HD streaming movie over the Internet, gigabit service provides you the overhead to ensure you can always get it, assuming the connection to Netflix, Amazon, or others is clear. (For backups and other huge data transfers, gigabit already shines.)

No, gigabit Internet paves the way for the next big thing: whatever services develop for customers who always have massive bandwidth available, whether it’s super-high-quality two-way teleconferencing for remote workers and remote offices (something that can be done with modest quality today), the delivery of Blu-ray-quality video as temporary 50 GB downloads that take just a few minutes or that can be burned to Blu-ray disc for future use, or high-bandwidth gaming that provides more real-time interaction at higher rendering resolutions. In the short term, always getting the highest possible speed from any site or service probably suffices.

I’m peeved because I don’t live in any of the 12 initial neighborhoods, although I’m not far away: a stone’s throw from the University of Washington and the north end of one of the large neighborhood segments south of the university. I’ll just have to wait and sob over my “mere” 25 Mbps cable connection, itself the envy of many in Seattle served only by a second-tier cable firm or CenturyLink. Many of those areas of the city are, of course, getting fiber first, and they will soon be able to lord it over me. At least Jeff Carlson and Agen Schmitz — the other Seattle-based members of the TidBITS staff — aren’t any closer to a covered area than I am, or I’d never hear the end of it.


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