Blair Levin was sitting in a Costa Rica hotel bar in 2011 when an idea struck him. Google was moving ahead with its plan to roll out free, high-speed Internet access in Kansas City, Kan.—the result of a competition that drew in more than 1,000 applications from cities nationwide. The demand for Web connectivity clearly outstripped even Google’s gargantuan capabilities. What if, instead of waiting for Mountain View or for the telecom companies to catch up, these cities started building their own next-generation fiber-optic Internet networks themselves?
The average broadband download rate in the United States is 7.4 megabits per second. That puts the U.S. in eighth place for speed behind South Korea, Hong Kong, Latvia, and the Czech Republic. But the kind of networks that Google Fiber will bring to Kansas City—and now Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah—will let those places effectively leapfrog ahead of their foreign counterparts. Gigabit networks offer speeds of up to 1,000 megabits per second (about 100 times faster than the current standard).
There's a huge advantage to having such bandwidth. Web applications are becoming increasingly data-intensive; if you use Dropbox, a file-sharing service, or video chat over Skype, you know what I mean. If bandwidth capacity doesn’t advance apace with online services, sooner or later, bottlenecking will become a major problem.
Levin, who served as chief of staff to former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hundt in the 1990s, thinks telecom operators are already benefiting from selling the notion of bandwidth scarcity, particularly with the rise of data caps (which consumers hate).
“It’s not a crime,” Levin said. “But Google’s selling bandwidth abundance. We should be encouraging them to compete.”
To sell bandwidth abundance requires a different way of thinking about the Internet business, for which Levin is becoming an increasingly prominent spokesman. In July, his consortium of academic institutions dedicated to building out fiber networks will be two years old. The research universities have joined together in a project called Gig.U, and each of them is taking the lead in bringing gigabit connections to their own communities. Because the whole point is to make next-generation networks a commonplace technology, Gig.U’s biggest members are all Big Ten and ACC schools.
Here’s how it generally works. A local university helps identify neighborhoods interested in, and that would be well served by, a next-generation network. It then partners with an outside vendor to help finance and build the infrastructure. Meanwhile, the city government becomes actively involved in the consultation and permitting process.
Every city where Gig.U works, it works differently. Seattle, for instance, was an early pioneer of fiberoptic networks. In the 1970s, the city installed fiberoptic cables in the street whenever construction crews ripped up the ground. About one-third of the city now has access to fiber, Levin told me, but much of it is “dark” and unused.
That’s where Gigabit Squared comes in. As the outside vendor partnering with the University of Washington, Gigabit Squared is leasing a substantial portion of Seattle’s existing fiber and is building out connections to people’s homes. Fourteen test neighborhoods in Seattle will be getting fiber connections, according to Mark Ansboury, Gigabit Squared’s president and cofounder. Partly thanks to the city’s forethought decades ago, the cost of bringing fiber directly into the home is a fraction of what it would be.
“The cost per connected home a few years ago was $3,500 or $4,000. Today, people will tell you it's $2,500 or $2,000,” said Ansboury. “Well, we're able to connect a home for, let's just say, 50 to 60 percent less than that.”
When Gigabit Squared announces its price structure to consumers next month, the high-speed Internet service will be available to 100,000 Seattle residents. But for all of the benefits of gigabit networks, there’s no way to be absolutely certain that all 100,000 will sign up.
“It’s sort of like trying to sell electricity before you know what it is,” said Erin Devoto, the city’s chief technology officer. “The challenge is trying to sell something people don’t know they need yet.”
That’s what makes the research universities so important. As hubs of innovation and experimentation, the idea is to prove to skeptics what gigabit fiber makes possible. One of those things is free public Wi-Fi—not necessarily the kind that blankets a whole city and is paid for by taxpayers, but the Starbucks kind that’s available in select, highly trafficked places.
Free Wi-Fi in a university hospital could do wonders for medical study. The University of Chicago—another Gig.U partner—has built a number of mobile applications that let people record data on aging and diabetes over the air, wirelessly.
“From a technical perspective, this is not a complicated project,” said Klara Jelinkova, the university’s chief information-technology officer. “The technology is in use today.”