So, you're on the hunt for a new home-Internet provider. The one you like seems to offer fast, reliable service, but its footprint ends just short of where you happen to live — and there aren't many other options in your area. Too bad: Looks like you'll be sticking with slow speeds and lackluster customer support while your luckiest neighbors get to surf without interruption.
For many Americans, this isn't hypothetical. It's reality. In Tennessee, for example, one city-run provider has spent years fighting to reach people who are literally a tenth-of-a-mile off its network. The reason for delay is somewhat bureaucratic — the answer involves state laws — but the point is that for those would-be customers, a better Internet connection has remained tantalizingly out of reach.
Until now, there weren't many ways around this problem. But thanks to a technology some Internet service providers (ISPs) expect to roll out next year, Americans dreaming of better, faster broadband may actually be able to get it.
To understand how, let's start with key concepts about how Internet service works. Most residential broadband today runs over cables that are laid in the ground or strung on telephone poles, that then branch off and tunnel directly into your house. Laying these cables is costly, which is why many Internet providers expand slowly — or not at all, if they're worried the returns can't justify the outlays.
Cellular Internet is a little different. Cell towers are expensive, too, but they create a one-to-many connection that serves thousands of mobile devices wirelessly — rather than creating a dedicated pipe to a single, fixed destination such as a home or business. The speeds aren't quite as fast on mobile data as what you get with fixed broadband, but for basic Web browsing and video, it's good enough.
Now, imagine if you could take the convenience of cellular data and combine it with the superfast download speeds associated with fixed, wired broadband. What might that look like?
Internet providers such as Verizon and AT&T are beginning to experiment with precisely this idea. Telecom geeks call it "wireless fiber," because it provides a fixed location (again, such as a home or business) with all the capacity of a Google Fiber or Verizon Fios connection but without the need to plug a cable directly into the building.
The result may be a much cheaper way for Internet providers to extend their networks. Much like slapping a range extender or WiFi router on your home network, carriers will effectively use wireless fiber as a way to push the boundaries of their service footprints, serving more people at the edges of their territory and densifying their existing coverage areas.
For people who live at the borders of an ISP's service area but not within it, this might mean gaining access to another choice of Internet provider. Still, don't expect to buy one of these Internet plans anytime soon: Despite the marketing, analysts say a truly widespread commercial product is about five years off.
"You've got to start working this stuff and planning this stuff," said Harold Feld, a senior vice president at the consumer group Public Knowledge, "and it takes a while for the industry to adopt standards. But once they've got them in place, things roll out pretty quickly."
Austin may be one of the first markets to get a taste of this technology. AT&T expects to conduct field tests there later this year; it promises ultimately to provide multi-gigabit speeds that represent an orders-of-magnitude improvement over today's typical home Internet services. It's also planning outdoor trials in Middletown, N.J. The company has said users of wireless fiber can expect speeds that are 50 to 100 times greater than what mobile users currently get on 4G LTE.
Google also appears to be getting on board. The company has asked the government for permission to experiment with high-frequency airwaves as part of its Google Fiber project — potentially paving the way for Google to offer fast wireless broadband.
Verizon plans to conduct its own tests, too, in and around its facilities in South Plainfield, N.J., Framingham, Mass., and Euless, Tex. It's even going so far as to rent out entire apartments and filling them with HD televisions and other electronics, the better to simulate performance in an actual household.
"If you're going to kick the tires on a technological revolution, you want to put it into a real-world scenario as fast as you can," said Adam Koeppe, Verizon's vice president of network technology planning.
While Koeppe declined to say whether the economics of wireless fiber would let Verizon keep growing its Fios network — the company said in 2010 that it would stop building more of it — he did say consumers should expect Verizon to provide the technology in areas outside its existing Fios footprint.
In February, Verizon announced it had purchased the fiber optic assets of XO Communications for $1.8 billion, opening the door for Verizon to expand into dozens of new markets. The deal also gives Verizon access to some wireless airwaves in those markets that it plans to use for wireless fiber testing.
"We're in the process of going through those spectrum holdings and identifying the markets that best fit that profile for the available spectrum and customer base," said Koeppe.
Internet providers are looking to deploy new, faster solutions for wireless Internet access as more Americans choose to compute on mobile devices rather than from stationary PCs that remain tied to a desk. That's one reason many analysts widely expect Comcast to start offering cellular-style Internet service for smartphones someday, and why cellular carriers are increasingly turning to WiFi as a safety valve to ease the pressure on their highly trafficked proprietary networks.
What this amounts to is a convergence among Internet providers, where wireless companies are becoming much more like fixed broadband operators and vice versa. And that potentially means a bit more competition in Internet access, perhaps resulting in lower prices or better service.
"It's intriguing that these industries were almost separate realms just a few years ago, the mobile industry and then the home-Internet business," said Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at the New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute. "Now, both sets of companies can cross over."