The Gigabit Age Is Upon Us

Editor’s note: Will Barkis co-runs Orange Silicon Valley’s GigaStudio, a consumer apps program to benefit consumers with super-fast networks. He served as Director of Mozilla’s Gigabit Community Fund and has worked at the National Science Foundation, where he collaborated with the White House to launch the U.S. Ignite next-generation apps initiative.

Society has entered a time in which technology enables us to be constantly connected, not only with one another, but also to devices and platforms. But we want faster ways to access and share information. Current connections aren’t enough yet. Gigabit networks are emerging as a transformative technology that provides rich connectivity and opens up a world of immersive experiences with blink-of-an-eye responsiveness, always-on reliability and more.

Here in the U.S., the shift to ultra-fast broadband is quickly gaining momentum thanks to both increased competition and community leadership. Communities are beginning to see economic opportunities increase, which accelerates job growth and offers a host of new public benefits. Local and national civic leaders are also calling for even faster broadband and access while municipalities, ISPs, citizens and Internet advocates demand action and funding for new gigabit infrastructure projects.

Behold, the Gigabit Age is upon us. Like the Stone, Bronze, and Silicon Ages, gigabit networks will facilitate the creation of new and better tools, applications and case studies — all ultimately empowering us to do new and better things.

Competition is accelerating speeds to gigabit

Until recently, the U.S. has had slower Internet than other advanced countries, but that’s rapidly changing. Over the last two years, Comcast has doubled speeds across its tiers to 50, 105 and 150 Mbps in most markets and Time Warner Cable has increased its Internet speeds 50 percent each year. In fact, average broadband speeds in the U.S. now exceed 30 Mbps.

Investment in gigabit infrastructure is having a measurable impact on economic development and job growth.

New marketplace entrants are turning the conversation to gigabit. Google sparked the imagination of 1,100 U.S. cities when it sought to bring its Google Fiber technology to a community. It now offers service in three metropolitan areas and announced expansion to four more with five additional metros in negotiations. A growing number of small and medium-sized providers including and Consolidated Communications now offer gigabit services in select markets. Incumbents are responding with expanded ultra-fast services. AT&T will deploy its GigaPower service to 100 potential new markets soon while Comcast trademarked “TrueGig” and is exploring a gigabit offering. Verizon’s FiOS network is currently available to nearly 20 million households and continues to add customers.

Communities are benefiting from gigabit

Communities are driving the move to gigabit, as well. Chattanooga, Tenn., has transformed itself into America’s first “Gig City” and envisions “gigabit as the electricity of the 21st century.” Over 250 municipalities have been similarly inspired and have deployed fiber to at least 50 percent of all households. These communities see this as essential infrastructure and an opportunity to drive economic development and public benefit for their citizens.

Investment in gigabit infrastructure is having a measurable impact on economic development and job growth. Entrepreneurship is flourishing in gigabit communities like the Kansas City and Chattanooga and gigabit cities are becoming fertile tech ecosystems. A Fiber to the Home Council study of 55 fiber communities found a 1.1 percent increase in GDP while a Cisco study found direct and indirect GDP increases of 1.1 percent and 3.5 percent, employment growth of 1.1 percent and significant improvement on key indicators of general public welfare.

Civic leaders push for ultra-fast infrastructure

As fiber communities experience economic benefits, civic leaders are putting political muscle behind the opportunity. Local leaders in 50-plus cities representing 20 million Americans have joined the Next Century Cities initiative. The US Ignite initiative, launched at the White House in 2012, has grown to include more than 35 cities and 65 research universities working together to develop next-generation gigabit applications. Mayors in small- and medium-sized cities see ultra-fast networks as a great equalizer.

On the national level, the FCC has redefined “broadband” as 25 Mbps. President Obama wants the U.S. to have “the fastest Internet” and has taken a series of steps to support gigabit-level broadband as outlined in a speech in Cedar Falls. Both the president and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler have also called for increased competition in ultra-fast broadband, and the FCC took action on Feb. 26 preempting two state laws restricting municipal fiber deployments.

Building the tools of the Gigabit Age

Today, Internet users want more from their communication and information technologies. Tomorrow, they’ll demand even more. Ultimately, people want rich, natural experiences created by reliable applications that are always available.

The transformative aspects of the Gigabit Age are the human experiences they will enable: blink-of-an-eye/finish-your-sentence responsiveness (latency), real-world-quality resolution (bandwidth), empowerment to create (symmetrical download/upload) and always-on connectivity (Quality-of-Service).

As the movement to gigabit builds momentum, we are already starting to see the possibilities: a better Internet experience with no waiting; an improved television experience with affordable, high-resolution 4K displays; immersive gaming using compute resources in the cloud; and more realistic videoconferencing.

But the truly transformative experiences have yet to be created. The bedrock services we will use every day — the telephone of tomorrow, the email of the future, the Facebook of fiber — don’t exist yet. Gigabit will enable new types of applications across many industries based on enhanced presence, real-world-quality communication, intelligent systems and natural-feeling experiences. These applications will improve our lives and allow us to do more, saving time, money, energy and ultimately helping us to find more human ways to connect.