The question of how best to facilitate the development of superfast networks -- usually defined by their ability to support download speeds of 1 Gbit/s or more -- raised a small bit of friction during Tuesday’s panel session at the Technology Policy Institute’s Aspen Forum. The issue at hand was: should we simply build gigabit networks in prime locations and see what happens, or should we wait until consumer demand asks for -- and is willing to pay for -- a fatter pipe?
On one side of the tussle was Blair Levin, who sandwiched a telecom analyst career between stints at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as chief of staff for Chairman Reed Hundt and more recently as staff director of the National Broadband Plan. Now a fellow at the Aspen Institute, Levin is also executive director of an entity called Gig.U , a coalition of 29 U.S. universities who want to bring high-speed networks to their campuses and surrounding communities, as a testing ground and incubator for applications and future businesses.
Gig.U is meeting with service providers, businesses, nonprofits and any other interested parties to flesh out plans to:
- Get some private investment to build out the high-speed networks in college towns, where much of the necessary underlying infrastructure probably exists
- Bring the high-speed connectivity to dorms, houses and businesses in the surrounding community
- See what kind of entrepreneurship emerges
“Let’s bet on the ingenuity of Americans," Levin said.
Since Gig.U doesn’t yet have any idea on how the service might be priced, it’s hard to say if the idea is at all attractive. Fellow panelist Kathy Brown, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ)’s senior vice president for public policy, said even where high-speed access is available, customers today aren’t buying the super-fast connectivity.
“We put FiOS [Verizon’s fiber to the home network] in areas where there are big universities, and we invested in the networks to offer speeds of 100 Mbit/s or more -- but nobody’s buying,” Brown said. (Verizon is advertising a FiOS package that delivers 150 Mbit/s download and 35 Mbit/s upload for $199.99 a month.) “Our customers are mostly content with [download speeds] of five or 10 megabits per second,” Brown said. “What are the applications [for a gigabit network]?”
Levin says innovation is a chicken-and-egg problem, and that Gig.U doesn’t really have a business plan per se. But he also thinks that there needs to be an ongoing pursuit of different methods of building faster networks, rather than simply waiting for existing service providers to build them, or relying on projects like Google (Nasdaq: GOOG)’s fiber-to-the-home network experiment under development in Kansas City. (See Google's 1-Gig Fiber Winner: Kansas City, KS.)
“There’s not a business model yet for gigabit connectivity, but there are already places where doctors are using gigabit [networks] to do things like look at MRIs in real time,” Levin said. “I’d just like to see it [fast networks] in more places than just Kansas City for people to play around with it.”
— Paul Kapustka is the founder and editor of Sidecut Reports, a Wireless analysis site and research service. He can be reached at [email protected]. Special to Light Reading.