Reaching Critical Mass for Gigabit Connections

The statistics concerning the number of gigabit fiber customers is eye-opening. Openvault tracks the percentage of customers provisioned at various broadband speeds. At the end of 2019, the company reported that 2.81% of all households in the US were subscribed to gigabit service. By the end of the first quarter of 2020, just after the onset of the pandemic, the percentage of gigabit subscriptions had climbed to 3.75% of total broadband subscribers. By the end of the second quarter, this exploded to 4.9% of the total market.

It’s clear that households are finally migrating to gigabit broadband. The gigabit product has been around for a while. The earliest places I remember selling it to homes were municipal systems like Lafayette, Louisiana, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Some small fiber overbuilders and small telcos also sold early gigabit products. But the product didn’t really take off until Google fiber announced it was going to overbuild Kansas City in 2011 and offered $70 gigabit. That put the gigabit product into the daily conversation in the industry.

Since then there are a lot of ISPs offering the gigabit product. Big telcos like AT&T and CenturyLink push the product where they have fiber. Most of the big cable companies now offer gigabit download products, although it’s only priced to sell in markets where there is a fiber competitor. Google Fiber expanded to a bunch of additional markets and a few dozen overbuilders like Ting are selling gigabit broadband. There are now over 150 municipal fiber broadband utilities that sell gigabit broadband. And smaller telcos and cooperatives have expanded gigabit broadband into smaller towns and rural areas all around the country.

The title of the blog uses the phrase ‘critical mass’. By that, I mean there are probably now enough gigabit homes to finally have a discussion about gigabit applications on the Internet. Back after Google Fiber stirred up the industry, there was a lot of talk about finding a gigabit application that needed that much bandwidth. But nobody’s ever found one for homes for the simple reason that there was never a big enough quantity of gigabit customers to justify the cost of developing and distributing large bandwidth applications.

Maybe we are finally getting to the point when it’s reasonable to talk about developing giant bandwidth applications. The most obvious candidate product for using giant bandwidth is telepresence – and that’s been at the top of the list of candidates for a long time as shown by this article from Pew Research in 2014 asking how we might use a gigabit in the home – almost every answer from industry experts then talked about some form of telepresence.

Telepresence is the technology to bring in realistic images into the home in real-time. This would mean having images of people, objects, or places in your home that seem real. It could mean having a work meeting, seeing a doctor, talking to distant family members, or playing cards with friends as recently suggested by Mark Zuckerberg. Telepresence also means interactive gaming with holographic opponents. Telepresence might mean immersion in a tour of distant lands as if you are there.

Early telepresence technology is still going to be a long way away from a StarTrek holodeck, but it will be the first step in that direction. The technology will be transformational. We’ve quickly gotten used to meetings by Zoom, but telepresence is going to more like sitting across the table from somebody while you talk to them. I can think of a dozen sci-movies that include scenes of telepresence board meetings – and that will soon be possible with enough broadband.

I’m looking forward to Openvault’s third-quarter report to see the additional growth in gigabit subscribers. We might already by reaching a critical mass to now have a market for gigabit applications. A 5% market penetration of gigabit users means that we’re approaching 7 million gigabit households. I have to think that a decent percentage of the people who will pony up for gigabit broadband will be willing to tackle cutting edge applications.

This isn’t something that will happen overnight. Somebody has to develop portals and processors to handle telepresence streams in real-time – it’s a big computing challenge to make affordable in a home environment. But as the number of gigabit subscribers keeps growing, the opportunity is there for somebody to finally monetize and capitalize on the capability of a gigabit connection. As somebody who now spends several hours of each day in online video chats, I’m ready to move on to telepresence, even if that means I have to wear something other than sweatpants to have a business meeting!

What Does a Gigabit Get Us?

pro_MC220L-01This is the sort of blog I really like because it talks about the future. Last fall the Pew Research Center asked a number of industry experts what ubiquitous gigabit bandwidth would do for society. Since then there have been numerous articles written about the changes that might come with faster bandwidth. Interestingly, these are not distant Star Trek fantasies; industry experts are expecting these ideas to manifest in a decade or so. Following are some of the more interesting ideas that I’ve seen:

Enabling Hermits Everywhere. A large number of experts believe that one of the first and most practical aspects of gigabit bandwidth will be telepresence, which means the ability to meet with people holographically and feel like you are in the same room. This would largely eliminate business travel because people could meet together at any time as long as they are all connected with gigabit bandwidth.

This same technology also means you could sit for an evening with a remote family member, meet with a doctor, get a piano lesson, or do almost anything that involves meeting with somebody else without needing physical interaction. This will enable even the biggest hermits among us to interact from the safety of our living rooms. (But it will also change the way we dress when we work from home!)

I have read predictions that this is going to mean that we do away with emails, phone calls, and other methods of communications, but I don’t buy that. It’s human nature to not always want to communicate in real time with people and I think telepresence is going to make us very careful about who we let into our lives. I suspect we will become very selective about who we will share our presence with and that we won’t let salespeople and strangers into our telepresence.

Holodecks? Big bandwidth ought to bring about new forms of entertainment. If we can sit holograhically in a meeting we can also holograhically attend a concert, take a ride on a gondola in Venice, or sit on the beach in the Caribbean. It also means a huge leap forward in gaming where we can become characters within a game rather than controlling characters from without. And I am guessing that the sex industry will probably be one of the earliest to monetize these abilities.

The Ever-present Infosphere. Huge bandwidth coupled with the cloud and supercomputers means that we can have a computerized world with us anywhere there is bandwidth. This will eventually do away with computers, smartphones and other devices since the infosphere will always be there. We will have multiple screens and holographic projectors in the home and some future indiscrete wearable when away from home. We will each have a useful personal assistant that will help us navigate in a gigabit world.

The Internet of Things Becomes Useful. Rather than just having a smart thermometer and a door that we can unlock with our smartphones, we will be surrounded by devices that will tailor to our individual needs to create the environment we want. We will be constantly medically monitored and will be far healthier as a result.

Just-in-time Learning. With the infosphere always around us we will be able to access the facts we need when we need them. This will revolutionize education because we will have access to all of the ‘how-to’ manuals in the world and we will have a personal assistant to use them. This makes a lot of traditional education obsolete because everybody will be able to learn at their own pace. There might not be home-schooling, but rather personal assistant schooling. Obviously there will still need to be traditional types of training for specialties and physical skills. But the idea of needing to sit through months-long classes will become obsolete for most topics. This also will make education ubiquitous and a motivated person from anywhere on the planet and from any walk of life can learn whatever they want.

Always Monitored. Privacy will become a major issue when everything we do is being monitored. This can go one of two ways and we will either all adapt to living in a monitored society, or else there will be a outcry for a technological solution for guaranteeing our privacy. How this one issue is resolved will have a huge impact on everything else we do.

Something Unexpected. Many experts predict that ubiquitous bandwidth will probably not bring us only the things we expect, but rather things that we have not yet imagined. Who, just a decade ago, really understood the impact of smartphones, social media, and the other applications that are forefront in our lives today? It’s likely than many of the things listed above will happen, but that the most important future developments aren’t even on that list.

The Digital Divide Becomes Critical. Those without bandwidth are quickly going to be left out of the mainstream of the new society that is going to rely on gigabit tools for daily life. This will probably drive communities to find ways to get fiber at any cost, or else look at being left far behind. But we also might see some people drop out of the gigabit world and have segments of the population who refuse to partake in the bandwidth-driven future. One also has to wonder how we will cope when we lose the infosphere due to hurricanes or other acts that kill our connectivity for an extended period of time. Will we become too dependent upon the infosphere to function well without it?