Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Oli-Gig-Opoly

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

“We are also trialing a 250/50 Mbps tier using DOCSIS 3.0 in select markets to test consumer interest,” Comcast spokesperson Charlie Douglas told Ars. “The interest in these ultra, ultra high-end speed tiers is today still rather limited.”

Comcast’s data overage fees might put a damper on customer enthusiasm for speeds in the hundreds of megabits. Comcast actually does deliver a half-gigabit to home customers, but that offering relies on fiber to the premises rather than cable. The 505Mbps down and 100Mbps up service is available in some markets for $399.95 a month, nearly six times the price of Google Fiber.

At that price, no wonder interest is low. While some may scoff at an ultra high-speed connection, consider all of the things delivered over that connection: operating systems, applications, movies, and streaming music. All of these common uses would benefit enormously from a gigabit ethernet connection.

This egregious pricing isn’t entirely the fault of the providers, though. North American cities have a penchant for single-family low-density urban planning, so running fibre for miles to a hundred-home suburb becomes extremely expensive. More dense regions don’t solve the problem, either: they require much more robust infrastructure to cope with the traffic. And, as Brodkin explains, there are existing infrastructure reasons which limit the ability to upgrade some regions.

Even if all of the above hurdles were overcome, though, there’s still the issue of extremely limited choice. The simple reason why gigabit connections haven’t permeated and become cheap in most communities is because most communities have only two or three ISPs to choose from, if they’re lucky; in many markets, there’s just one ISP. When such a powerful industry is controlled by so few players, it becomes a consumer’s nightmare. To paraphrase Elliot Jay Stocks, ISPs have all the power of a utility, yet none of the responsibility.

Of course, in most cities, utilities are run by the local government — either at a municipal or provincial (state) level. So what about a more-or-less municipal ISP? Jon Brodkin explored that concept last week:

While businesses in the Bryan/College Station area pay $3,395 per month for 50Mbps download and upload, businesses only pay $99 for the same service in Chattanooga, Benham told Ars. Bryan/College Station officials are looking for affordable gigabit fiber for residents and 10 to 100Gbps for businesses, along with public wireless networks. The region includes Texas A&M and other institutions in a thriving research sector.

Chattanooga, Lafayette, and other communities have built their own fiber networks, with the utility serving as the Internet provider. Government-run networks aren’t for everyone, though—Louisville and the metro area of Bryan, Texas, and College Station are both hoping to attract private companies to build out a fiber network.

Perhaps a government-run network might not be your flavour; you may cite Eddy Snowden’s disclosures, to which I’d respond that if the NSA is tapping internet connections at high-level providers, what’s the difference? There are potentially other concerns with such a scheme, depending on where you live and your particular political bent. I’d welcome it as an option, at the very least.