An Industry of Hype?

Bandwidth_thickAlmost every day I see somebody in this industry making a claim that makes wince a little bit. It might be vendors talking about gigabit speeds. It may be service providers talking about gigabit cities. And to some extent I get it. It’s a world driven by marketing and everybody competes first with hype. Those in the know quickly figure out the truth, but I guess what bothers me is that others don’t.

Let’s start with the equipment vendors. The country is pushing hard to get gigabit bandwidth into our schools. And since schools are already wired with coaxial cable, this led me to look at the technologies that are in use today that can deliver bandwidth over existing cable in schools. After all, what good is bringing a gigabit to a school if you can’t actually get it to the classroom? The various technologies including HPNA, MOCA and HomePlug all claim gigabit-capable speeds. Additionally, the new WiFi standard of 802.11ac promises gigabit and above speeds. Another upcoming technology is G.Fast that is promising to do gigabit speeds on copper.

But none of these technologies actually delivers a gigabit at the application layer, which is the usable speed of bandwidth that is available to an end user. Some of these technologies do provide a gigabit of theoretical data at the transport layer, but after accounting for the various overheads, noise, interference and other factors, the actual bandwidth is much slower than advertised. Additionally, the speeds they tout are the total bandwidth of the technology and those speeds need to be divided into an upstream and downstream component, further diluting the bandwidth.

At best of these various technologies today deliver maybe a total of 400 Mbps in total bandwidth, and a few of them are quite a bit slower than that. So it turns out that these gigabit technologies are not really a gigabit, or even half a gigabit. But a non-engineer would not know this by looking at how they are advertised.

We have the same thing going on by service providers. For years broadband providers have sold ‘up-to’ data speeds that they were never able to achieve. There is still a lot of that going on, particularly in smaller markets where the advertisements talk about the speeds in nearby urban areas and are far in excess of what can actually be achieved in small towns.

But the one that really gets me is the term gigabit cities. When I hear gigabit cities I picture a place that is building a network that will make a gigabit data product available to every home and business in the community. And there are almost no cities like that.

People think Google is bringing gigabit everywhere, but they aren’t. First, they only go to neighborhoods that guarantee a certain penetration rate for Google. And once there they don’t serve any apartment complexes or businesses. Google is basically cherry-picking residents willing to pay $70 per month for data. While laudable (and I wish I could get it), Google is not building gigabit cities.

There seems to be other cities announcing themselves as gigabit cities almost weekly. Some of them offer gigabit speeds to residents, but at very high prices as much as $250 per month. Most of these cities only supply gigabit speeds to schools and a handful of large businesses. Again, very laudable and I am happy to see anybody invest in fiber. But gigabit to the schools and factories does not make a gigabit city. It just makes fast schools and factories.

There are a small handful of places that really are gigabit communities. There are some small telcos, municipalities and cooperatives that are offering gigabit to everybody in their footprint. But this is really rare and for the most part these are small communities. Interestingly, the folks that actually do it don’t tout themselves and just quietly deliver fast speeds to customers. I’m starting to think that the ones who yell loudest are the least likely to actually be doing it. I hope somebody can prove me wrong about this.

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