Gigabit Cities

US Embraces Gigabit, Still Averages 14 Megs

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Gigabit Cities Live 2016 -- Despite major movement on many fronts to deploy gigabit services in the US, the average broadband access speed in this country continues to lag behind both global leaders and federal regulators' thresholds for broadband access, Light Reading's Mari Silbey noted here today.

While acknowledging the groundswell of gigabit activity by network operators, large and small, and by municipalities as well, Silbey pointed to the recent reported US average access speed of 14.2 Mbit/s as an indication that this country "has a long way to go" even to hit the Federal Communications Commission's broadband definition of 25 Mbit/s, much less bring gigabit access to the masses.

"We have very few states that have a significant percentage of connections surpassing that [25-Meg] threshold," she said, in kicking off Light Reading's Gigabit Cities Live conference here Tuesday. And most of the high-speed connections are still heavily concentrated in densely populated areas, leaving rural communities behind.

Still, there are gigabit initiatives happening in many places, not just as the result of efforts by the big companies such as Google Fiber Inc. and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), but also smaller companies such as rural broadband providers and ISPs like Ting, which has turned up gigabit networks in places such as Charlottesville, Va., and Westminster, Md. And new models are emerging for the cities that want to support and advance the gigabit cause that don't always involve owning and operating the network on their own.

"There are many companies now offering gigabit service, and not all of them are big names," Silbey said. Another example is Rocket Fiber , a company that is now trialing 10-Gig service in Detroit, Mich.

Municipalities continue to push their own gigabit agendas and build their own networks, "with some really spectacular successes and some really spectacular failures," she notes. As the market matures, a set of models is emerging that covers the diversity of approaches municipal governments are taking as they try to advance the buildout of fiber in their communities, while avoiding some of the classic challenges that have thwarted muni-owned networks.

"What a lot of cities have realized is that they may be able to get the upfront funding to build a network, but the challenge becomes the ongoing funding for upgrades and maintenance," she noted. "And there are operational challenges that cities encounter as well," particularly when it comes to having ongoing support staff that can handle things like maintenance and upgrades.

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As a result, new hybrid models for building gigabit networks are emerging that use a combination of city funding and other support -- such as access to rights of way -- to entice private partners to build and operate gigabit networks, usually through an RFP process. On Tuesday in Charlotte, Dennis Newman, program director of the North Carolina Next Generation Network will be on hand to explain how multiple communities in the Research Triangle Park region of his state came together to back a network buildout.

More private companies are becoming interested in building gigabit networks based on these new muni strategies, Silbey noted. But even those approaches are not without their problems, as controversy -- and some lawsuits -- are popping up in places where cities have lured in new competitors by giving them access to existing utility poles or other favors that incumbents didn't get.

"As cities try to streamline the way that ISPs can come in and build networks by opening up public rights of way and simplifying the pole attachment process, incumbents aren't always happy and there are places, like Louisville, where lawsuits have been filed," she said.

Specifically, incumbents such as AT&T have protested when new players have been given access to poles and the authority to move existing connections to make way for new technology, something it says could lead to service outages for its customers. It's not always easy to tell, however, whether the incumbents are more intent on slowing new competitors' entry.

One hot new area of discussion for the Gigabit Cities crowd is the emergence of new ways cities can put gigabit networks to work in improving services, boosting safety and enabling economic development. Silbey noted that many cities are exploring how they can make city services more accessible and streamline their operations in the process to save tax money.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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