Faster broadband begets faster broadband, report says

September 2, 2014

Credit: Gig.U's new annual report, "From Gigabit Testbeds
to the 'Game of Gigs.'"

One of the arguments in favor of small-scale deployments of whiplash-fast fiber broadband, whether it's Chattanooga's municipal gig network or Google Fiber, is that they will nudge existing Internet service providers to upgrade their networks, even if they lack the scope to ever change the broadband landscape on their own.

Gig.U, the short-hand name for the Aspen Institute-affiliated University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, is newly out with its third annual report. And in it the group argues that their initial promise -- that small university high-speed "test beds," the one-block area around Case Western in Cleveland that served as its inspiration, will spur greater investment in fiber broadband across the board -- is bearing out. Here's the key few sentences:

When we started the fundamental strategy of incumbent Internet Service Providers was harvesting past investments in bandwidth-constrained networks. Now, numerous providers, including some incumbents, are developing strategies to deploy networks capable of providing abundant bandwidth, and challenging others to enter a new, growth-oriented "Game of Gigs".

On its face, the conclusion is difficult to argue with. There are simply more fiber-to-the-premises networks now than there were a handful of years ago, and even more promised. The report cites North Carolina, where six universities (Duke, North Carolina State, UNC Chapel Hill and Wake Forest) came together and drew the interest of AT&T in putting in a high-speed network. The company is now eyeing other North Carolina cities for gigabit connections, and Time Warner Cable is sniffing around, too.

Of course, it's in Gig.U's interest to conclude that their work is provoking providers into upgrading their broadband. But leave aside the gratuitous "Game of Thrones" name-check for the moment. (Gig.U's streteched-to-the-breaking point justification: "[I]n both versions, the winner of game [sic] is uncertain, but in a way that is completely the opposite from its fictional counterpart, our 'Game of Gigs' improves life for the rest of the population." Okey doke.) There does seem to be something to the idea that the existence of faster broadband is acting as a magnet to even more faster broadband, whether it's by the simple forces of competition or the fact that early entrants are triggering broadband-enabling conditions that other providers are then enjoying.

Indeed, that seems to be what Google has done by requiring, in the second phase of its Fiber deployment, interested cities to preemptively tell them what their city will do to ease the gigabit network's way in, such as opening up streets for the running of cables or simplifying the fees for connecting to utility poles. The report cites AT&T chief executive Randall Stephenson: "Cities and municipalities are beginning to hold up their hands and say we would like you come in and invest. And they're actually beginning to accommodate and tailor terms and conditions that make it feasible and attractive for us to invest."

Some people might argue that cities were long waving their hands and begging for partnership, and that AT&T only began noticing after Google did. But nearly inarguably, Google and others have taught cities the language for asking.

Some of the flurry of urban broadband activity the Gig.U report is noticing may well be hot air; "Fiber to the Press Release," some call it, as the report admits. And, as the report also notes, the big Internet service providers often haven't also explained to their shareholders and investors why the strategy of "harvesting" their existing networks that they promoted for years is no longer good operable. But the expectation is now that forward-looking ISPs will compete to bring communities blazing-fast broadband, on paper if not in bits, and that shift has happened remarkably quickly.

Nancy Scola is a reporter who covers the intersections of technology and public policy, politics, and governance.
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