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Why U.s. Broadband Is Stuck in the Slow Lane

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U.S. broadband could be much faster than it is.

New technology options can provide speeds far in excess of current U.S. broadband alternatives.

Credit: technologically

More than 95% of U.S. households with incomes over $150,000 have broadband Internet connections, according to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Tom Wheeler, and broadband connection speeds tripled between 2011 and 2014, according to the FCC’s December 2015 "2015 Measuring Broadband America Fixed Broadband Report."

In 2014, the average broadband connection speed in the U.S. was 31 megabits per second (Mbps)—well over the 10Mbps average of 2011. These metrics may differ significantly depending on provider: the FCC report found Cablevision clocks an average speed of 60Mbps, while Comcast barely surpasses 35Mbps.

The jump in speed over the last several years was driven largely by pressure on networks from video streaming services. However, while customers can watch Netflix faster than before, the network improvements do not address a simple problem plaguing the U.S.: broadband is still pretty darn slow here, compared to other options available.

For example, services and technologies like G.Fast and Google Fiber are capable of mind-boggling speeds 30 to 50 times faster than even the best broadband options available.

So, why is "high-speed" Internet still stuck in the slow lane?

The Promise of Fiber

The problem with broadband is not just another First World complaint; broadband in the U.S. performs relatively poorly when it comes to Internet speeds, compared to those seen in other nations. In 2013, the U.S. ranked 29 out of 39 countries based on the speed of their Internet connections, losing out to France, Canada and Germany, according to the FCC’s report.

Google has been experimenting with its Google Fiber service in a number of U.S. cities; at this writing, Google Fiber is in use in some cities in Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah, and Google has announced additional cities it will build into in Alabama, California, North Carolina, Texas, and Utah, A study by Bernstein Research cited in Multichannel News estimated late last year Google Fiber had passed "about 427,000 homes and 96,000 business locations, primarily in Kansas City and Provo, Utah." This high-speed Internet option offers connection speeds up to 1,000Mbps, a benchmark AT&T and Comcast also are striving for with fiber networks of their own (GigaPower and Gigabit Pro, respectively).

Much of the problem end-users experience with Internet speeds, and why we are burdened with glacial networks, is the "last mile" connecting the networks to a home. Cable needs to be strung from the boxes, terminals, and lines that deliver Internet service across entire states and cities to the individual homes in a given neighborhood or geographic area. These lines are often copper, and provide far slower connectivity than the fiber optic cables used by a service like Google Fiber; that translates to a significant slowdown from the box on your street’s telephone pole to your living room.

Google’s approach is to swap fiber for copper in the last mile where possible in the cities where the service operates. Yet even Google admits there are limitations to its Fiber service. Explains Fiber’s installation site, "If what you want is maximum speed, fiber [the material, not Google’s service] will be the fastest in the long run. But it would require all your device connections to use fiber, and that does not look like the trend right now."

Access for All

Still, fiber-optic cables are a clear winner over the microwave and satellite technologies that power existing broadband services. While fiber-based Internet services may struggle to gain a foothold in cities with legacy technology, fiber is making inroads in communities that have long lacked the connection speeds commercially available from big Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

One project owned and operated by Quintillion Networks is laying undersea and terrestrial fiber-optic cable to deliver high-speed Internet service to northwestern Alaska. "Existing microwave and satellite technology provides slow upload speeds and is very expensive," says Quintillion spokesman Tim Woolston. "A resident of Barrow, AK, currently pays seven times as much for broadband than someone living in San Francisco, while receiving significantly slower speeds and restricted capacity limits."

Fiber-optic technology is faster, more reliable, and much less expensive than available technology in these areas, Woolston notes. That is why the Alaskan network is just the first step in connecting Asia and Europe through the Arctic, according to Alaska Dispatch News, which noted, "Phase one of the project is the Alaska portion. Phase two would connect Asia with Alaska — eventually landing in Tokyo — and phase three would tie Alaska with Europe via London."

Soon enough, some ISPs will not need to lay new cable, be it fiber, copper, or other, as certain groundbreaking technologies come to market.

G.Fast is a new technology that delivers fiber-speed Internet over the existing copper cables in your home, reports CNN Money. G.Fast uploads at 750Mbps, though some tests put the download speed much lower. It works "just as well over coaxial cables as it does over telephone lines," CNN notes, which is good news for major ISPs like AT&T that have large legacy copper networks with telephone and coaxial wires.

One startup wants to do G.Fast one better by eliminating wires entirely. Starry is a new venture from former executives of Aereo, a live-streaming startup, that promises to give homes Internet connectivity at speeds up to 1 Gbps with no wires at all. The service will be offered beginning in Boston this year.

Even "established" disruptors like Google Fiber (which launched its first trial in Palo Alto in 2011) face a tough road ahead: major ISPs control a significant portion of broadband infrastructure, such as existing telephone and coaxial wires. Using this infrastructure—or circumventing it entirely—might not be as easy as upstarts think, since their technology does not always integrate with the infrastructure in many communities.

Yet in a world that demands more and faster content, consumers surely would not mind the option to surf the Web in the fast lane.

Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Tampa, FL. He has written for over 60 major publications.


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