With promises of super high-speed gigabit internet, the Google Fiber project receives its fair share of hype. But slow progress in rolling out the fiber-optic communication technology has spurred competition from some unlikely sources—rural telecommunication companies.
Vermont Telephone Co. (VTel) now offers gigabit internet service to 17,500 customers—at half the monthly rate for Google Fiber in its pilot city of Kansas City, MO. VTel isn't the first rural telephone company to make the switch to fiber; the Wall Street Journal reports some 700 companies have already made the switch. But VTel’s reasonable subscription price of $35/mo—less than the cost for a typical broadband connection in many areas—signals an increasingly competitive, affordable market, and one not completely dominated by Google.
VTel CEO Michel Guite told The Wall Street Journal that federal stimulus grants allowed the firm to lay some 1,200 miles of fiber cable across the Green Mountain State. Such a massive investment suggests a huge level of confidence among industry players—Google and VTel alike. Only about 600 Vermont homes have signed up for the service so far, the WSJ reports, but the move suggests an awareness among service providers that this technology is the future. Guite even reported that his company has been holding public meetings and offering one-on-one consultations with customers to help them better understand the value of gigabit-speed internet.
Gigabit internet promises download speeds of 1 gigabit per second—about 138 times as fast as the national average. With that much bandwidth, file downloads could be incredibly fast, and high-resolution video streaming (like 4K ultra high-definition) should be possible.
Even the federal government recognizes the infrastructural need for high-speed internet. Last year, President Barack Obama signed an executive order aimed at streamlining the approval process for building fiber-optic networks. Increasingly, the issue is seen as a matter of global competitiveness. While the average speed in the U.S. is still among the highest in the world at 7.4 megabits per second, Asia has a clear advantage, with South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong boasting the highest averages of 14.0, 10.8, and 9.3 megabits, respectively, according to tech firm Akamai.
The fuss over fiber optics raises an interesting question about the need for speed in an age where the majority of the world's population still doesn't actively use the internet. However, it’s estimated that over the next 10 years, the total number of people actively using the internet will skyrocket from 2 billion to 7 billion, thanks to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets. This will drastically alter the culture of the internet—in some ways driving up demand for speed, but more likely forcing a host of new societal concerns. Consequently, we can expect new markets, laws, and political questions to follow in its wake.
(Photo: Flickr user PNNL - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Creative Commons)