Comcast said this week that it's planning to roll out a next-generation cable technology allowing it to compete at the same speeds as Google Fiber — 1 gigabit per second. That's very good news for Internet users in the short term, if it pans out.
Within three years, and possibly two, virtually all of Comcast's 22 million broadband subscribers could be gigabit-enabled, according to the company. The only catch? You'll have to swap out your cable modem for a new one that supports that extra speed (and probably pay a pretty penny for the service).
Still, if Comcast is successful, it would suddenly become one of the largest providers of gigabit Internet in the country. AT&T also provides gigabit Internet through its U-verse product, and as I just mentioned, so does Google Fiber. But Comcast could conceivably edge out these other providers; they offer gigabit services in only a handful of cities so far, with an uncertain timeline for expanding because of the need to build new fiber optic infrastructure. There's a race on to become a nationwide gigabit company, and with this move, Comcast could pull ahead.
If Comcast, Google and AT&T are already competing to get Americans on gigabit Internet, however, that doesn't compare to the even bigger showdown providers like these are going to face in the next decade. Because the next race — to 10 Gbps — has already begun.
It's hard to put in perspective just how mindbogglingly fast 10 Gbps is. So let's look at it this way: At current top speeds of 500 megabits per second, a Verizon customer can download an entire HD movie in roughly 15 seconds. At the speed of Google Fiber, that time would be shaved in half. Now, think about how quickly you could download that same film but with a connection that's even 10 times faster than that.
That's the kind of bandwidth we're talking about, and while nobody at home really needs all that power (yet), companies like Comcast know that someday they'll be asked to provide it. A 10-gig connection would help cities power their Internet-enabled infrastructure. It would help businesses support media-rich communications and possibly even virtual reality applications. Multiply your self-driving car and smart home appliances by a couple billion, and it quickly becomes apparent how much data we're going to be using in the future.
With that in mind, what Comcast plans to roll out shortly isn't just capable of delivering 1 Gbps speeds. Under ideal conditions, the company says it's capable of 10 Gbps speeds, effectively future-proofing the technology, which is known as DOCSIS 3.1. If it ever makes it to market, a 10 Gbps plan would probably be insanely expensive; Comcast already prices its niche, 2 Gbps service at $300 a month.
But Comcast isn't the only company looking ahead to 10 Gbps. In a sign of how lucrative Internet providers think this space could be, Verizon has been testing an experimental version of its FiOS service that is 10-gig capable. This is a different technology than cable that, like Google Fiber and AT&T U-verse, relies on fiber-optics.
At a time when many Americans are still chugging along on sub-1 Gbps subscriptions, Comcast and Verizon are trying to get ahead on the costly work they know will have to be done to support 10 Gbps speeds. And over time, the chances that more companies join this race will only grow.