Leading Question

By Susan Burns August 31, 2010

Sarasota ran a fun, attention-getting campaign last winter to win Google Fiber—the ultra-high-speed open Internet service (100 times faster than what most Americans have) that Google promises to install for free in one lucky community in the country. The decision is supposed to be made by the end of the year.

The city is also in discussions with i3 Group, a British company that wants to provide those superfast speeds through cable in sewer lines as long as it can get rights-of-way and city staff time.

But if neither of those scenarios work out, does that mean our current bandwidth is inadequate to satisfy or attract business? That depends on whom you talk to. Both Sarasota and Manatee have fiber optic cable through Verizon FiOS and/or Comcast, and fiber is the best network available right now for telecommunications and home entertainment.

FiOS is the more advanced service since it connects to the home; Comcast’s fiber stops at neighborhood hubs and uses copper cable the remainder of the way. FiOS is currently in front of 160,000 premises in Sarasota, including 1,800 businesses in the city of Sarasota, and available to 100,000 premises in Manatee. That makes the region amazingly fortunate. FiOS offers service in only 16 states, one of which is Florida, and only six counties in Florida get FiOS.

So why do some businesspeople say bandwidth (the term used for how much data can be sent through a network connection or a modem, measured in bits per second, or bps) is not adequate here?

For Rich Swier Jr. of The HuB, who helped spearhead Sarasota’s Google Fiber campaign and has been in discussions with i3, it’s largely about the underutilization of our fiber optic cable, which has enormous capacity to handle data. There are two issues. Because both Verizon and Comcast own their cable, they keep it exclusive to their customers—sort of like a road that they own and only allow their own cars to drive on, Swier says. And even if you pay to use the road and buy one of their cars, you cannot get the ultra-fast speeds that Google Fiber is talking about unless you’re willing to pay upwards of $20,000, because Comcast and Verizon would have to upgrade their hardware to enable those speeds.

Swier understands Verizon and Comcast’s logic—“they’ve spent billions so far”— but he says there are companies out there—like Google and i3—that will build open-access networks so that everyone can drive super-fast on them and offer this service at more affordable prices. In Bournemouth, England, customers get i3’s ultra-fast service for TV, Internet and phone for $15 a month.

Already more companies—like Swier’s—are working with video, 3D medical files, sophisticated teleconferencing and cloud computing, and their demand for greater bandwidth is growing. Anyone who’s tried to download a movie from iTunes knows the frustration when the movie still hasn’t finished loading after an hour and a half.

Swier says to imagine that frustration and potential when you think of all the business applications—at-home health monitoring, doctor appointments through the Internet, sophisticated video conferencing that provides crystal clear video and real time conversation. “This is about economic development,” Swier says. “There’s nowhere near enough bandwidth to attract business.”

But David St. John, a spokesperson for Fiber-to-the-Home Council, a nonprofit organization that wants to bring fiber optics into every home in the U.S., says few homes or companies require more bandwidth than Verizon and Comcast fiber are offering at the moment, and that this is basically a supply-and-demand issue. He predicts that it will be five years before consumers start demanding the faster speeds.

“It’s a game of leapfrogging. When people see the new technologies out there, like YouTube or cloud computing or 3D TVs, they demand faster speeds,” he says.

“Is there enough bandwidth? That’s like asking, ‘Will there ever be enough money?’ There’s never enough,” he says.

Swier agrees but says businesses are already demanding faster speeds. “Businesses need a laptop, a fast connection and they need it to be affordable. Decisions are being made on infrastructure now,” he says.

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