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The Endless Wait for the Fiberhood

So Google made news this week with the announcement that they intend to bring their gigabit Google Fiber broadband and cable TV service to Austin next year. It appears AT&T is prepared to do the same with their U-Verse offering. This means that the citizens of Austin, or a hefty portion of them at any rate, will be eligible for the same service that’s already available to residents of Kansas City, KS and Kansas City, MO.

The current service isn’t cheap. You have to pay $120 for the full package, plus a $300 installation fee that’s apparently been waived for early signups. In exchange, you get gigabit Internet, 1TB of cloud storage, and a full slate of cable TV programming that appears to rival the traditional satellite and cable providers. If you don’t want TV, it’s $70 per month.

Now it’s hard to imagine what gigabit Internet means in the real world, except that you’ll be able to upload the entire contents of your Mac or PC’s hard drive, up to 1TB, as fast as you can transfer the files on your own local network. Streaming 3D movies will take seconds. How can you miss?

Well, there’s a lot to miss because the chances that Google Fiber will be coming to your city may be little to none. Right now, the service is an experiment, to see what’s involved in managing a significant rollout. While Google can certainly afford to underwrite the costs of such a service in a few selected high density cities, that doesn’t mean it will scale up in a reasonably affordable fashion to New York, Phoenix, Las Vegas, or even San Jose, CA. And what about rural areas, particularly farm communities? The hopes and dreams for such a service are non-existent, unless a wireless alternative can be provided that would offer speeds comparable to the burgeoning 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard.

One estimate has it that it would cost tens of billions of dollars for Google Fiber roll-outs that would only cover a fraction of the residents of the U.S. But that doesn’t mean such a service isn’t sorely needed.

Right now, the speediest alternative in the U.S. appears to be Verizon’s FIOS, which offers maximum download speeds of 300 megabits, with uploads up to 65 megabits. In contrast, Google Fiber is gigabit in both directions.

Unfortunately, Verizon has pretty much stopped expanding FIOS deployment, which is proving to be extremely expensive. As to the cable providers, the local service in the Phoenix area, Cox Communications, now has an “Ultimate” package offering downloads of up to 150 megabits, with uploads capped at 20 megabits. The other local broadband service, CenturyLink, matches the 20 megabit upload claim, with downloads of 40 megabits. Many parts of the U.S. are limited to satellite-based Internet, offering a fraction of the performance of cable, but not at a lower price. HughesNet, one of the major satellite ISPs, charges $99.99 per month for 15 megabits down, two megabits up. In contrast, Cox has a Preferred package, for roughly half that price with the promise of 25 megabits down, two megabits up.

The long and short of it is that I would welcome Google Fiber in my neighborhood, should it ever arrive. Even if it does, it would be a matter of years to actually happen. Regardless, it’s not as if Cox is going to do anything without any meaningful competition to confront, although 150 megabits isn’t too shabby by any means, although I’m currently using a cheaper package.

I would also expect cable providers to continue to find tricks to boost performance beyond the current limits. It may even be possible to somehow offer close to gigabit speeds without rewiring an entire neighborhood. But that’s just an offhand theory without any facts to go by.

My larger concern is the dreaded monthly bandwidth cap. CenturyLink maxes out at 250GB downloads; uploads don’t count towards the total. Cox specifies 400GB “combined download and upload,” even if you’re using the 150 megabit Ultimate package, which means you may get from here to there fairly quickly. Depending on the service provider, you may find speeds severely throttled or suspended if your usage exceeds that monthly limit. If you continue to exceed the limit, you may find yourself looking for another ISP, assuming you can find one.

Now 400GB may seem like an awful lot, until you consider that HD movies may be several GB each. If you consume a regular diet of Netflix or iTunes fare, I can see where you’d hit those limits really quickly. Imagine what would happen if Apple signed up the content providers and attempted to offer a cloud-based TV service to compete with cable or satellite? Millions of potential customers would be smashing their bandwidth caps within days, and that would cause no end of chaos for the customers and the ISPs. Not to mention Apple.

For such schemes to work, the ISPs would have to be persuaded, or bribed with some sort of financial incentive, to relax or eliminate their bandwidth limits. Or perhaps Google will figure out a scheme for widespread rollouts and upset the traditional ways of doing things. That, in itself, may be sufficient reason to hope for the arrival of someone’s “fiberhood” in your city.