Broadband in Big Cities

san_francisco_skyline-wideI’ve often written about the issues with rural broadband, but today I thought I would take a look at the state of broadband in the large cities. As people read and hear about Google and other fiber projects I think the natural assumption is that the cities either have fiber or soon will get fiber. I don’t think that’s true.

Let’s look at a few of the larger fiber builders and what they have done with cities. First is Verizon FiOS. It’s a great service and I had it at one of my previous homes. But for the most part it’s not been built deep in the heart of the larger cities. FiOS has been a suburban and medium town product and you are far more likely to be able to get FiOS in a suburb than if you live downtown.

Google is currently building a few cities. Both they and AT&T have also released a list of possible candidate cities for fiber. But Google only builds in neighborhoods where enough customers sign to buy fiber. And AT&T’s fiber construction seems to be more press release for now than substance.

And nobody wants to talk about is that none of these providers builds to MDUs. Not FiOS, not Google, not AT&T, not the munis and pretty much not anybody else. Nobody has solved the inside wiring issues that come with multi-dwelling units, and so none of the big fiber providers are building to them. In some cities over half of the living units are in MDUs, and even when fiber comes, these residents don’t get it.

There are a few companies that are specializing in MDUs, but they either concentrate on student housing or on that small slice of apartment buildings that have already been wired with category 5 cable. And most apartments and condos are wired only with traditional coaxial cable and telephone copper. And then you have to layer the contractual issues on top of the wiring issues. The FCC took a stab a few years ago of fixing some of the more egregious abuses where cable companies had tied up the rights to the existing wire inside MDUs. But they didn’t close all of the loopholes and there are plenty of apartment complexes that are still contractually locked into allowing only the cable company.

But then one has to ask if any of this is all that bad, because the cable companies in the large cities have increased cable modem speeds and it’s hard to find a city that doesn’t have speeds of at least 100 Mbps available. But you have to look a little closer to see that is not as good as it sounds.

The faster cable modem products are expensive. In many cities the 100 Mbps products are around $100 or more per month, absent any sign-up specials. But that is not the only cost customers face. For example, I have Comcast and they wouldn’t let me buy a 50 Mbps cable modem without having to take some of their cable product. Cable companies don’t have to sell naked cable modems, and so there are a lot of households that just can’t afford the big packages that are needed to get the faster cable modem speeds. This goes back to the same categorization of broadband as an information service, and just like with net neutrality, the FCC doesn’t have the authority to force cable companies to sell naked cable modems. Finally, there are problems with cable modems in some MDUs. Some of them with older wiring will not allow the delivery of faster data speeds. Or, in some MDUs the internet comes with the rent and you get whatever the landlord will pay for.

There is some good news for cities in that over the next decade the cable companies are going to be able to offer speeds as fast as a gigabit. They have a lot of work to do on their networks to get to those speeds, but the technology to get there is already developed or on the drawing boards at Cable Labs. One has to wonder if the cable companies will upgrade in cities where they don’t have a real competitor. One has to think that the cable companies will be as judicious in handing out gigabit speeds as they today are handing out 100 Mbps speeds. It’s one thing to be in a market that has the potential for very fast data speeds, but it’s something else to be able to actually order it or to be able to afford it.

I am afraid that most cities are going to be at the mercy of the cable monopoly for decades to come. FiOS is no longer expanding. Google is going to go where they go, and that is not going to be everywhere, even in the cities where they do build.

There is some hope in the future for apartment buildings. I’ve reported before on a technology that uses ultrawideband that looks to be able to deliver gigabits of data over existing coax without disturbing the cable traffic. Think of it as DSL for cable systems. But the fast versions of that technology are still a few years away, and even that is going to require somebody to build a fiber to the front of an apartment.

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