The gigabit future is going to bring about an Internet that is at least three times faster than anything available today, and that could be good news for innovators everywhere. This goes well beyond being able to stream more movies, download more music and play more games. Technology innovators could fully realize entirely new uses for a faster Internet — ideas that are only in their infancy today, impacting areas ranging from health care and infrastructure to online learning.
We’ve already seen a foreshadowing of the gigabit future with the rollout of Google Fiber, first to Kansas City, Kan., and now Austin, Texas. Consumers, particularly cord-cutters, are rejoicing (or, at least, looking on enviously) over the arrival of gigabit broadband connections, seeing the entry of players such as Google as yet another tempting alternative to the legacy providers for whom the arrival of the search giant is the source of yet another headache. Google Fiber promises fast, cheap broadband Internet connections capable of gigabit speeds (1 gigabit, or 1,024 megabits, of data per second) at a time when legacy providers’ connectivity speeds are measured in megabits.
Faster Internet speeds create new opportunities for upstart companies to break up legacy business models in other industries. Take Aereo, for example, which is taking live television signals and delivering them over the Web, further blurring the line between traditional and Internet TV. Thanks to a bit of technological wizardry, the company is able to offer things you might expect from your cable company, such as the ability to record live TV for later viewing — all without a cable subscription or even a television. The whole TV-over-the-Internet concept works because members of what Nielsen Co. has dubbed the "Zero TV" generation think of shows as just another form of online video. It’s hard not to see how faster connectivity speeds would give new momentum to the “Zero TV” movement and open up new opportunities for gigabit broadband providers.
The big caveat in a gigabit future, though, is that it’s expensive to build out all the necessary fiber connections. Gigabit connectivity requires more than the flick of a switch — it requires the laying of fiber-optic cable. Verizon, which currently offers the fastest fiber competitor to Google Fiber (i.e. Verizon FiOS), appears to have pulled back from earlier plans to offer FiOS nationally for exactly that reason. It’s even pricey for Google — Wired’s Marcus Wohlsen reports that one estimate for the Google Fiber experiment runs as high as $15 billion to get it into 20 million households — making it a luxury that few other companies could afford without raising the ire of their shareholders. Citing the high cost of bringing fiber broadband to a single city, Wohlsen and others have described Google Fiber as a massive "shaming exercise" to get the name-brand broadband providers to step up and offer faster connectivity speeds.
If all goes according to plan, a gigabit future means that America will remain one of the most attractive places in the world to be an innovator. However, the gigabit future is not just about speed for the sake of speed. After all, you don’t need gigabit connectivity to check e-mail or post social media status updates. You do need gigabit speeds, though, to handle high bandwidth activities that have not been invented yet. Innovators, as Genachowski points out, have always been able to take advantage of increased network capacity.
So, it’s not hard to see why cities would be so eager to eat gigabit fiber. Doing so could very well usher in a brave new world for content creators, advertisers, health-care practitioners, engineers and entrepreneurs.
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