Skip to main content

Who Needs 1 Gigabit Per Second?

Most U.S. viewers can’t even define a Gigabit of data, much less demand it in their homes.

Yet despite this ignorance — and dearth of desire — among most consumers, many major traditional-TV distributors are quietly scrambling to enhance their networks to make them capable of 1 Gigabit per second, a speed that’s literally lightning-fast. If the average Internet speed of 7.2 Mbps was correlated to miles per hour, a “car” would travel 7.2 miles per hour.

At 1 Gig, this car would clock in at 1,025 miles per hour. As cable operators prepare for these upgrades, a new generation of DOCSIS 3.0 modems can now provide Gigabit-class speed bursts by bonding 24 downstream channels, and on the horizon are modems that can bond 32 downstream channels — enough to hit speed bursts of 1.2 Gbps and allow MSOs to offer tiers with advertised speeds in the range of 300 Mbps to 400 Mbps. The budding, fast-tracked DOCSIS 3.1 platform, meanwhile, is already setting cable’s sights on multi-Gigabit speeds — up to 10 Gbps in the downstream and 1 Gbps in the upstream.

Oddly, what’s driving this speed race isn’t consumer demand, at least not right now, but a competitor — a very big one. Google Fiber has now announced intentions to wire up three U.S. cities with 1 Gigabit-per-second fiber, not so much to compete directly with entrenched MSOs as to spur them into upgrading.

Already, operators are responding to ensure that the industry isn’t caught flat-footed by the competition now or later, when consumers are likely to actually need that much bandwidth pouring into their homes.

‘GOOGLE FIBER EFFECT’

But is cable falling prey to the “Google Fiber Effect” and getting 1 Gig-ready faster than it would have if Google Fiber did not exist?

“I think the practical answer to that is yes,” John Chapman, a Cisco engineering fellow and the chief technology officer of the company’s cable access business unit, said. “We saw that with Verizon [when it launched FiOS]. I think Google is pushing cable along. The competitive pressure is not to be underestimated.”

Still, “The technology is ahead of the market demand right now,” he said. “The real demand for 1 Gig isn’t there yet, but it’s growing.”

The average speed of 1 Gbps “is many years off,” Arris chief technology officer Tom Cloonan agreed. His cable-adapted version of the Nielson curve, which has long served as an accurate predictor of bandwidth demand, indicates that 1-Gig speeds won’t really come into play as a practical matter until 2018.

That doesn’t mean MSOs won’t launch and market 1-Gig tiers before then, just to keep pace with the competitive forces, but most users won’t really need them until much later.

Instead of predicting which specific apps might require 1-Gig bursts, Cloonan took a look at scenarios in which more everyday, simple uses of the Internet — such as the downloading of a Web page — could get a real, perceptible benefit from a 1-Gig connection, particularly in the area of latency.

The average size of a Web page is 1.3 Megabytes, he said, a fact confirmed by HTTP Archive, a site that tracks Web performance. Using a 10-Mbps connection, that page takes about one second to appear on screen — not instantaneous, but still adequate for most users. At 100 Mbps, it would download in 100 milliseconds, practically instantaneously.

Now fast-forward and assume that the size of the average Web page grows by 40% per year. By 2020, the typical Web page would grow to 10.3 MB. Using a 10-Mbps connection, it would take 10 seconds to load a simple Web page — far beyond the tolerance level of most consumers. That same page would download in 1 second on a 100-Mbps service and be near-instantaneous on a 1-Gig connection.

There are benefits to having more bandwidth on your burst speed,” Cloonan said, noting that the “snappiness” of something as mundane as accessing a Web page will remain important as page sizes expand.

The same thing occurs with streaming video. It takes time to fill those buffers before video playback starts on-screen. Although new, more efficient codecs like HEVC/H.265 will keep bandwidth requirements from exploding as 4K and 8K HD video arrive, faster access speeds will ensure that users aren’t twiddling their thumbs because of poor latencies.

Chapman said 1-Gig speeds will help out with massive downloads, but “latency is a quality that makes a difference to people.”

And low-latency, 1-Gig connections will become of greater importance for services such as telepresence and telemedicine, said Dan Bowman, the chief technology officer of Sandvine, a network and bandwidth-management firm. “When you can’t tolerate latency, that’s when you get to very high bandwidths,” he said.

In many ways, the recent race is a case of history repeating itself. In the mid-2000s, the specter of fiber-to-the-home competition from Verizon Communications’ FiOS product and from other telcos prodded MSOs to pursue DOCSIS 3.0, a platform that initially targeted broadband speeds of at least 100 Megabits per second. At the time, everyone asked: Who needs 100 Mbps per second, anyway?

As we jump to 2013, MSOs around the world are marketing 100-Mbps cable modem tiers, driven in part by a surge in popular over-the-top video services and the emergence of tablets, smartphones, smart TVs and specialized streaming devices that compete for precious bandwidth on the home network.

Offering 100 Mbps seemed nutty eight years ago, but it’s a competitive necessity now, particularly when it comes to serving power users.

Where in the World Is Google Fiber?

Until another city or town green lights Google Fiber, here’s a snapshot of where Google is looking to deliver its 1-Gig goodness.

Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo.

• On the Kansas side, Google Fiber is already connecting homes in two “fiberhoods” (Hanover Heights and Dub’s Dread). Connections are in progress in five more fiberhoods (areas with between 250 and 1,500 homes), with three more teed up for this June, and another 14 set for June 2014.

• In Missouri, six fiberhoods are in the process of being connected, with two more buildouts getting underway before the end of this month.

• Google Fiber has also reached deals with several Kansas City-area towns, including Gladstone, Raytown and Grandview, Mo.; and Shawnee and Olathe, Kan., but the timing of those buildouts has not been announced.

• Key incumbents in the footprint: AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Surewest.

Austin, Texas

• Google Fiber expects to begin connecting homes in the market by mid-2014.

• Primary ISP incumbents: AT&T and Time Warner Cable.

Provo, Utah

• Google Fiber has proposed to acquire the iProvo network and complete the buildout — only about 9,000 of 35,000 homes are currently connected — and wire up two dozen local public institutions and offer free 5-Mbps Internet service for up to seven years. The deal isn’t closed yet, but it does call for Google Fiber to put up $1 in exchange for its upgrades and other promises to the community.

• Primary ISP incumbents: Comcast and CenturyLink.

Source: Google, Multichannel News research

TAKEAWAY

Cable operators are preparing their networks to offer speeds of 1 Gigabit per second — whether consumers are ready for it or not.