While the speedy service has been around for a while, its high cost has placed it almost exclusively in the hands of big business and the wealthy technology elite. That’s about to change.
By Rick Paulas
Turn up your speakers and press play.
To anyone born after 1998, that sound is mostly meaningless. To those born before, it likely triggered a Pavlovian response that had you getting up to make coffee while you waited for the screen to finally load. The Internet used to be very slow, kids. Now, it is not.
Of course, the goal posts of Internet speed are continually moving downfield. Downloading a photograph in a second used to be the cat’s meow. Streaming live video is the current bee’s knees. But with the rise of “gigabit Internet,” those things will soon be as outdated as those phrases.
Currently, the global average for broadband speed is 6.3 megabits per second (Mbps). (For comparison, dial-up connections maxed out at 56 kilobits per second, nearly 0.88 percent of the current average.) While the United States is faster than most countries with an average of 31 Mbps, speed depends heavily on where you’re located. New Jersey has the highest average at 57 Mbps; Idaho comes in last, at 14 Mbps.
But all of that is child’s play when stacked against the speed of “gigabit Internet.” It is exactly what it sounds like: One gigabit per second, or 1,000 Mbps.
Unless you’re well-versed in computer lingo, those numbers don’t offer much in the way of perspective. What does something like 1,000 Mbps feel like? It’s uploading 25 photos to Facebook from your iPhone in five seconds. It’s downloading 25 songs in a second. It’s streaming ultra-HD movies on Netflix on 40 different devices at once (!). If dial-up was horse and buggy, and broadband is a car, gigabit Internet will be a supersonic jet.
If dial-up was horse and buggy, and broadband is a car, gigabit Internet will be a supersonic jet.
It’s not the future of the Internet, it’s an entirely different Internet.
“It’s not just media, but applications like telemedicine, smart cars, cloud applications, education, and other industries that benefit greatly from the ability to access and use more bandwidth and speed,” writes Virginia Lam, spokesperson for Starry, a start-up offering gigabit Internet in Boston, in an email. “What the gigabit future looks like is hard to predict because many applications may not yet be developed or are still in their infancy.”
While gigabit Internet has been around for a while, its high cost (around $300 a month) has placed it almost exclusively in the hands of big business and the wealthy technology elite. But, over the past few months, lower-priced packages have started making wider usage a reality. Consolidated Communications, Inc. has started to offer its Roseville, California, customers gigabit Internet for $69.95 a month. AT&T announced its gigabit roll-out to residents in Bradley County, Tennessee, for $90 a month. Comcast has its own — weirdly confusing — offer for Chicago residents priced at $70 a month.
When will it be the norm for the rest of the country? “It’s hard to give a firm timeline, since Gigabit networks are expensive and time-consuming to deploy,” writes Katie McDonagh, a representative for Bay Area gigabit provider Sonic, in an email.
This has been the frustrating lesson of the Google Fiber project. In 2012, the company finished installing gigabit fiber in Kansas City before quickly upping the ante, announcing roll-outs in the rest of the country. Four years later, six other cities have gigabit Internet, with an additional 16 soon expected to join the party. But progress has been slow enough that Google (well, Alphabet now) recently announced that it was suspending projects in Portland and Chicago after falling “well short” of its goal of five million subscribers. It was also revealed that Google Fiber’s 500-person team would be cut in half.
Is this some sign of doom for the potential of gigabit Internet? Not necessarily. The announcement also stated that Google was working on “alternative technologies.” Rumors are swirling about a shift to wireless technologies in order to forgo the cost of a physical infrastructure build-out. If that’s the route, there’s already a working template in place.
Last year, San Francisco-based ISP Monkey Brains successfully funded the IndieGoGo project “Gigabit Wireless to the Home.” While the project’s success is directly linked to the 141 people who took the $2,500 plunge to have gigabit wireless hooked to their home, the company raised enough extra money to deploy antennas to schools, homeless shelters, and cultural centers for free. “We don’t just want to be stewards for the douchebags, so we try to throw in some philanthropy,” said Alex Menendez, one of the founders, when I profiled the company for Popular Mechanics last year.
A version of this community-minded crowd-sourcing may be the future. Small towns are already pooling their resources to become their own Internet service providers. Why shouldn’t that include this next-generation Internet? While initial costs might be too steep for some, hopefully enough will find ways over these financial hurdles to make their own deals. “Incumbents are able to charge lots of money for sub-par, limited bandwidth because, typically, consumers have no competitive options,” McDonagh writes. “Gigabit fiber projects have put pressure on the incumbent phone and cable companies to deliver more bandwidth to their customers.”