by Karl Bode
Thursday Oct 20 2016 16:10 EDT
Article Originally Appears Here
If you want to see why broadband in the United States still stinks, your first stop should be to examine the state level protectionist laws used to stifle competition across countless markets. But despite the lobbyist stranglehold over state legislatures, we’re still seeing some impressive progress when it comes to the deployment of gigabit fiber networks. Google Fiber continues to slowly but surely expand its footprint, and we’re seeing the rise of numerous other piecemeal gigabit solutions, whether coming from the likes of Tucows or municipal broadband deployments in cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee.
To be clear, the “gigabit revolution” is certainly a bit overhyped. The vast majority still can’t get this caliber of service, and the obsession with the mighty gigabit does tend to obscure a potentially more important conversation about broadband prices and the often glaring lack of real competitive options. But by and large most people can agree that gigabit fiber builds are a good thing in an era when most users can still only obtain DSL at circa 2002 speeds and prices, and two-thirds of homes lack access to speeds greater than 25 Mbps from more than one provider (aka a broken monopoly).
Well, unless you’re Vox, which published a kind of strange article this week lamenting how “cities spent millions on fast gigabit networks” and “nobody is sure what they’re good for.” The central narrative of the article is apparently that gigabit fiber networks aren’t any good because nobody has developed the “killer app” that can effectively use all that bandwidth at once:
But six years after the first super-fast connections went live, even proponents concede no “killer” gigabit application has emerged. Most of their potential, critics say, is simply ignored by users. And building gigabit networks nationwide would be a colossally expensive undertaking.
Vox appears to have missed the fact that gigabit broadband competition itself is the killer app. Google Fiber may only have a small footprint, but in markets where it’s deployed, incumbent ISPs have been forced not only to dramatically improve their own networks, but also to offer these services at a significantly lower price point (usually around $70) without the usage caps that have been popping up in less competitive markets. Gigabit municipal broadband deployments often have the same impact, as we’ve seen in locations like Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.
It’s true that most consumers don’t take gigabit speeds when offered; usually because 25 to 50 Mbps remains the sweet spot and can often be had for significantly less. But ISPs consistently note that even advertising gigabit speeds causes consumers — most of whom actually have no damn idea what speed they subscribe to — to call in and see if it’s time for an upgrade, driving overall adoption. Another study has found that prices of all service tiers tend to drop when gigabit connectivity is introduced into a market.
Yes, gigabit speeds aren’t really necessary for most people, but that’s missing the point. Especially when you’re trying to build the networks and competitive landscape of tomorrow.
As such, Vox’s claim that “nobody is sure” what gigabit networks are actually good for seems a bit short-sighted. Worse, perhaps, the article’s core narrative is only fueled largely by a single analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation — the same think tank that first proposed SOPA. Said think tanker manages to contradict himself in pretty short order, lamenting the lack of the “killer app,” then immediately admitting gigabit network deployment could help the development of said apps in the future:
Of course, there’s another possibility: Maybe people just don’t have any use for so much bandwidth. That’s the view of Doug Brake, of Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a think tank funded by foundation and government grants as well as donations from firms such as Google and IBM. “There are no apps today and no apps on the horizon,” he said, though he acknowledged that development of new applications would probably proceed more quickly with far broader gigabit coverage.
Vox notes that the ITIF takes money from “Google and IBM,” but forgets to inform the reader they also take money from the same incumbent broadband ISPs threatened by the rise in gigabit competition. The ITIF is the same organization that recently tried to argue that Comcast’s plan to charge users more money to protect their own privacy was “pro consumer,” and that the failed Comcast merger would have been fantastic for consumers. As such, perhaps the ITIF is not the best cornerstone for your argument that gigabit networks are useless.
Meanwhile, this narrative that gigabit networks aren’t important because we’re not yet using their full potential runs deeply through the entire piece, the author trying to use Netflix as an example of why, apparently, we shouldn’t aim high when building new broadband infrastructure:
Right now, one of the most bandwidth-hungry applications out there is Netflix. Netflix recommends users have at least 3 Mbps of bandwidth for standard-definition video — meaning that you could stream about 300 Netflix videos simultaneously on a 1 gigabit connection. If you want Netflix’s highest-quality streaming, called Ultra HD, that requires 25 Mbps. So a gigabit connection would allow you to stream 40 Ultra HD videos at a time.
But again, who builds technology for the future constrained solely by the needs of today? Are gigabit networks over-hyped? Yes. The fascination with extreme speeds tends to help some ISPs obfuscate the reality that the lion’s share of their tiers are expensive (or capped). But Vox seems to have been sold on the idea that we don’t really need these additional gigabit networks because the incremental improvements being deployed by cable and phone companies are “good enough.”
But most of us realize that’s not true: while cable companies are busy using relatively inexpensive DOCSIS 3.1 cable upgrades to deliver gigabit speeds Vox implies nobody wants, most phone companies are hanging up on unwanted DSL customers to focus on capped and metered wireless broadband that isn’t truly a replacement for fixed-line service. The end result is going to be a stronger cable monopoly (and in many areas less competition) than ever before, and a market that might offer gigabit speeds eventually, but at exorbitant prices and with utterly unnecessary usage caps.
No, you don’t need gigabit speeds today. But gigabit networks from the likes of Google Fiber and municipal broadband providers are delivering the kind of competition folks at incumbent ISPs (and by loyal proxy think tanks like the ITIF) are pretty clearly terrified of. And by helping them keep the bar set at ankle height, Vox is only perpetuating the kind of thinking that saddled us with the current broadband duopoly that so many of us “enjoy” in the first place.