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!