Vox Seems Kind Of Upset That We're Building Gigabit Networks With Bandwidth To Spare

from the you're-not-helping dept

If you want to see why broadband in the United States still stinks, your first stop should be to examine the state level protectionist laws used to stifle competition across countless markets. But despite the lobbyist stranglehold over state legislatures, we’re still seeing some impressive progress when it comes to the deployment of gigabit fiber networks. Google Fiber continues to slowly but surely expand its footprint, and we’re seeing the rise of numerous other piecemeal gigabit solutions, whether coming from the likes of Tucows or municipal broadband deployments in cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee.

To be clear, the “gigabit revolution” is certainly a bit overhyped. The vast majority still can’t get this caliber of service, and the obsession with the mighty gigabit does tend to obscure a potentially more important conversation about broadband prices and the often glaring lack of real competitive options. But by and large most people can agree that gigabit fiber builds are a good thing in an era when most users can still only obtain DSL at circa 2002 speeds and prices, and two-thirds of homes lack access to speeds greater than 25 Mbps from more than one provider (aka a broken monopoly).

Well, unless you’re Vox, which published a kind of strange article this week lamenting how “cities spent millions on fast gigabit networks” and “nobody is sure what they’re good for.” The central narrative of the article is apparently that gigabit fiber networks aren’t any good because nobody has developed the “killer app” that can effectively use all that bandwidth at once:

But six years after the first super-fast connections went live, even proponents concede no ?killer? gigabit application has emerged. Most of their potential, critics say, is simply ignored by users. And building gigabit networks nationwide would be a colossally expensive undertaking.

Vox appears to have missed the fact that gigabit broadband competition itself is the killer app. Google Fiber may only have a small footprint, but in markets where it’s deployed, incumbent ISPs have been forced not only to dramatically improve their own networks, but also to offer these services at a significantly lower price point (usually around $70) without the usage caps that have been popping up in less competitive markets. Gigabit municipal broadband deployments often have the same impact, as we’ve seen in locations like Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

It’s true that most consumers don’t take gigabit speeds when offered; usually because 25 to 50 Mbps remains the sweet spot and can often be had for significantly less. But ISPs consistently note that even advertising gigabit speeds causes consumers — most of whom actually have no damn idea what speed they subscribe to — to call in and see if it’s time for an upgrade, driving overall adoption. Another study has found that prices of all service tiers tend to drop when gigabit connectivity is introduced into a market.

Yes, gigabit speeds aren’t really necessary for most people, but that’s missing the point. Especially when you’re trying to build the networks and competitive landscape of tomorrow.

As such, Vox’s claim that “nobody is sure” what gigabit networks are actually good for seems a bit short-sighted. Worse, perhaps, the article’s core narrative is only fueled largely by a single analyst at the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation — the same think tank that first proposed SOPA. Said think tanker manages to contradict himself in pretty short order, lamenting the lack of the “killer app,” then immediately admitting gigabit network deployment could help the development of said apps in the future:

Of course, there?s another possibility: Maybe people just don?t have any use for so much bandwidth. That?s the view of Doug Brake, of Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a think tank funded by foundation and government grants as well as donations from firms such as Google and IBM. “There are no apps today and no apps on the horizon,? he said, though he acknowledged that development of new applications would probably proceed more quickly with far broader gigabit coverage.

Vox notes that the ITIF takes money from “Google and IBM,” but forgets to inform the reader they also take money from the same incumbent broadband ISPs threatened by the rise in gigabit competition. The ITIF is the same organization that recently tried to argue that Comcast’s plan to charge users more money to protect their own privacy was “pro consumer,” and that the failed Comcast merger would have been fantastic for consumers. As such, perhaps the ITIF is not the best cornerstone for your argument that gigabit networks are useless.

Meanwhile, this narrative that gigabit networks aren’t important because we’re not yet using their full potential runs deeply through the entire piece, the author trying to use Netflix as an example of why, apparently, we shouldn’t aim high when building new broadband infrastructure:

Right now, one of the most bandwidth-hungry applications out there is Netflix. Netflix recommends users have at least 3 Mbps of bandwidth for standard-definition video ? meaning that you could stream about 300 Netflix videos simultaneously on a 1 gigabit connection. If you want Netflix?s highest-quality streaming, called Ultra HD, that requires 25 Mbps. So a gigabit connection would allow you to stream 40 Ultra HD videos at a time.

But again, who builds technology for the future constrained solely by the needs of today? Are gigabit networks over-hyped? Yes. The fascination with extreme speeds tends to help some ISPs obfuscate the reality that the lion’s share of their tiers are expensive (or capped). But Vox seems to have been sold on the idea that we don’t really need these additional gigabit networks because the incremental improvements being deployed by cable and phone companies are “good enough.”

But most of us realize that’s not true: while cable companies are busy using relatively inexpensive DOCSIS 3.1 cable upgrades to deliver gigabit speeds Vox implies nobody wants, most phone companies are hanging up on unwanted DSL customers to focus on capped and metered wireless broadband that isn’t truly a replacement for fixed-line service. The end result is going to be a stronger cable monopoly (and in many areas less competition) than ever before, and a market that might offer gigabit speeds eventually, but at exorbitant prices and with utterly unnecessary usage caps.

No, you don’t need gigabit speeds today. But gigabit networks from the likes of Google Fiber and municipal broadband providers are delivering the kind of competition folks at incumbent ISPs (and by loyal proxy think tanks like the ITIF) are pretty clearly terrified of. And by helping them keep the bar set at ankle height, Vox is only perpetuating the kind of thinking that saddled us with the current broadband duopoly that so many of us “enjoy” in the first place.

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Comments on “Vox Seems Kind Of Upset That We're Building Gigabit Networks With Bandwidth To Spare”

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Jason says:

Although it’s been quoted so much as to probably be a cliché by now, it really does sound like the old "640k ought to be enough for everybody" situation. Just because there isn’t a need right now for more/better/faster doesn’t mean there won’t ever be. It’d be like someone in the early 1900s asking why build all these roads if there are so few people with cars… building a bit bigger than you need gives you room to grow, and (more importantly) room to allow the emergence of technology and uses (the famous "killer app") that no one could even consider right now.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Cart before the horse.

Isn’t it possible that the ‘killer app’ isn’t on the horizon because of the current limitations in bandwidth? Ideas that might make use of greater bandwidth are discarded simply because there is no technical way to implement them, causing them to not be on the horizon.

On the other hand, I can imagine those engaged in spying on everyone would love higher bandwidth capabilities, even though the greater size of their haystacks would probably mean missing more opportunities to ‘keep us safe’ from things the nanny state despises. That makes me wonder why they aren’t engaged in forcing fiber everywhere, especially when that will probably mean some more government contracts that can be abused. You know they will find a way.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Ding Ding Ding! You win the prize. This is exactly why Comcast invested in them. They are using them to spout off their insane points of view. The gigabit networks are there for future growth including all of the cable cutters who will someday want high resolution streaming video… without being charged per GB, TB or someday PB.

Tim R says:

Usage Caps

I think this also puts a chink into the ISP argument for usage caps as well. If you’re getting gigabit speeds to the home, then there has to be a stout backbone to support multiple users and subnets for it. And if the bulk of your customers are sitting around 25-50Mb, then you’ve got an EXTREME amount of headroom in the pipe, sometimes even during peak times. IMO, this makes the idea of a usage cap even more ridiculous and empty than it already is.

Christenson says:

Devil's Advocate

Let me take the position of the devil here:
1) 20-25MB/sec is a sweet spot today — remember, my house only has a few human beings in it, and they all actually operate at around 10 bits per second!
2) I am reasonably certain my upgrade to 20-25Mb/sec was made available because someone realized noone would want my ISP’s service if it was only 1Mb/sec and someone was offering better. The slow-to-follow consequence of that is that commuting from home at least part time now makes a little more sense.
3) The “killer” app for gigabit networks will involve low latency — that is, various forms of remote “presence” in virtualized spaces. We already see this in games. There’s also the matter of backup.
4) An unintended consequence of wide bandwidths for everyone is these massive DDOS attacks. I’m waiting for the trolls to get involved!
5) A second likely unintended consequence of wide bandwidths for everyone would be broadband in rural America, which might revive it from the continuing depression it remains in and which has lead to the rise of Donald Trump.

R.H. (profile) says:

Broadband Duopoly

When I first saw the duopoly forming, I thought that we’d see cable providers using improving DOCSIS standards to provide faster internet service and telecoms moving from DSL to fiber-to-the-building/home (as Verizon started to do) or at least fiber-to-the-node as they discovered that using copper all the way just couldn’t compete anymore but, that’s clearly not what happened.

Instead, we got cable providers who are slowly (if at all) improving their speeds while also adding caps and raising prices and telecoms who seem to be trying to get out of the business of providing fixed line internet service altogether.

DannyB (profile) says:

Nobody is sure what it's good for?

Gigabit fiber? Nobody is sure what it’s good for?

It seem to actually remember from personal memory that this was said of:
1. the internet
2. dial up services prior to the internet
3. personal computers
And I know of:
4. mainframe computers (maybe a world market for 5 total)

It was also probably said of (but I have no personal knowledge):
1. Pocket calculators
2. Microwave ovens
3. Television
4. Satellites (artificial ones)
5. Radio
6. Automobiles
7. The telephone (why wouldn’t you go talk to the person directly?)
8. Electricity to the home

If you have no vision to see what something is good for, then you shouldn’t be pontificating about it. If you don’t see the future then become a manager, a CEO, or a political leader.

Some of the things it is good for may not become apparent until we have it. Again, just look at:
* the internet (who would have imagined the uses, excluding FaceTwit, but including YouTube, Wikipedia, Google, BitTorrent)
* automobiles (there is now unbroken concrete from your doorstep to my doorstep, no matter where you live, trucking industry)
* satellites (new applications never dreamed of, GPS, weather, remote sensing, spying)

Once a new capability is in place, new things will develop on top of it that you couldn’t have predicted.

And finally just to expand upon “personal computers” and what are they good for? While looking at retro computers I came across a YouTube video of an interview with a 1980 computer store owner. He started answering with applications like, kitchen recipies, business applications like accounting, inventory, ordering, shipping, personal applications like contact list, email, calendar, and games, entertainment, etc. As I listened, I realized that every single one of his predictions had come true. We all carry devices in our pockets today that do these things and much more. Personal computers in the truest sense.

Crazy Canuck says:

Just to add to that, I think the reason there are no apps that use the full potential of Gbps connections has a lot to do with the fact that most people don’t have access to those speeds. It’s more of a build it and they will come type scenario. It’s just like how you know that if someone develops a faster or better CPU/GPU, someone will build a bigger and better OS/app/game to make use of it all.

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

So. We need one killer app that can soak the full bandwidth. Er, wouldn’t that be exactly the time then that gigabit isn’t enough? Particularly with more than one user at a location?

Or, you know, people might actually use something like that currently if they could get it and at a reasonable price without being murdered by usage caps…

Antifreeze might protect your engine at -65 C. But who needs that? No one drives in that. Make something different that doesn’t have such a low freezing point, geez.

PaulT (profile) says:

“Most of their potential, critics say, is simply ignored by users”

Wait… I thought that usage caps were necessary because there wouldn’t be enough bandwidth for everyone if they weren’t enforced? Are they now saying that nobody’s using the amount of bandwidth that would require an upgrade to the network, thus making such caps pointless except as a cash grab? Surely not…

As for the “killer app” thing, it’s very silly when you’re talking about infrastructure, especially with something that it’s known will be needed eventually. Even incremental increases with current trends (streaming moving toward 4K, game downloads increasing in size all the time, etc.), it’s obvious that the extra bandwidth will be needed at some point. Plus, as others have noted, often the infrastructure needs to be in place *before* the killer app is possible. As an example – video streaming was possible and desirable before YouTube and Netflix built businesses on it. But, there’s no way a mainstream success on that kind of scale could have been built before the broadband infrastructure was in place to support them.

I think this is ultimately an indication of the constant failure of long-standing corporations to consider long-term requirements over short-term profits. Without competition, they know they can bleed as much money as possible out of existing infrastructure and don’t really care about the picture 5-10 years ahead. Any “killer app” is therefore likely to be developed outside of the US, and they will be spending much more money to rush out a solution in the future or ensure that the US is no longer a primary market for new development. But, as long as they can profit for a few years before the tide turns, they’ll be happy with their bonuses and leave the mess for the next guy.

Ninja (profile) says:

I’m quite amused by these pieces declaring nobody needs gigabit connections. Who are they to decide what I need? Do they know my daily needs? Do they know if I want to have tons of spare bw for the times I actually need it or just to use it without any limitations? What if I’m interested in the amount of simultaneous connections and not for the bw itself? What if I want to keep my latency very low even if all my 5 relatives are watching netflix at super high def and browsing, downloading stuff at the same time?

No, seriously, when you have the opportunity just tell these morons to shut up and let us choose. I would certainly get such speed. Because I need it? No. Because it’s awesome and I want it? Certainly.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Do they know my daily needs?”

There’s also the fact that your “needs” may change depending on what’s available. The “needs” of a person with an always-on broadband connection and those of a person with metered dial-up will vary massively because the latter knows they have to do without the things that are not possible on that connection.

If a person knows their connection can only handle a single HD movie stream that they need to queue up game downloads overnight because they take so long, that doesn’t mean that’s all they wish to use the connection for. They might simply be limiting their usage because their ISP has a low usage cap. Given the speed and capacity, they might actually be wanting to use it to stream 4K simultaneously from 3 different devices, all while downloading an 80Gb game and making some VoIP calls.

You won’t know just by looking at their current usage, and that’s just on things that are currently available. There’s no “killer app” here needed, just the ability for the infrastructure to keep up with what people actually wish to do.

Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

Other News.

n other news, the soft drink industry complains that tap water is good enough to drink, and hurts their profits, and demands that the water-works pump poison into the water supply.

What it comes down to is that an optical cable really doesn’t cost appreciably more than a copper cable (what costs is the installation), and the optical cable has practically unlimited capacity. If you have to run a new cable because the proprietors of existing cables are practicing rent-seeking, then the new cable might as well be optical. and the new network on top of the new cable might as well be gigabit.

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