Fiber to the home: America's most important, and most ignored, tech development

Businesses and public organizations love to talk about fiber to the home projects, but not enough are doing much about it.

Forget the iPhone 5s. Don’t bother looking at Microsoft’s Surface 2. Ignore software defined networking. They’re all important in one way or another, but to my mind, the biggest, most important development in the tech world right now is the beginning of fiber-based Internet service for home users.

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Google has some highly publicized gigabit internet projects, but some estimate they'll only reach 8 million homes by 2022.

I’m reminded of this by this week’s news that good old AT&T is jumping on the gigabit Internet bandwagon to vie with Google to bring fiber to the home in Austin, Texas. AT&T says it will begin offering 300 Megabit service in December and ramp up to 1 Gigabit per second service in 2014. Google is already working on bringing gigabit fiber to Austin, as well as Kansas City, Missouri, and Provo, Utah.

This week’s announcement follows a long and somewhat bumpy history for fiber to the home. Although lots of companies and public/private partnerships have promised it for places like Seattle and Omaha, Nebraska, many have yet to deliver. Back in 2011, for example, Sonic.net promised to bring it to San Francisco, but so far the $70 per month service hasn’t made it out of Sebastapol, California. (Earlier this year, Forbes quoted analysts predicting that Google Fiber will reach just 8 million homes by 2022. That’s almost 10 years away!)

Frankly, though, I don’t care which company does it. I just want it. And I want it not just for me, or for a few test markets here and there, but for the whole country. Heck, I want it for the whole world.

3 Reasons fast Internet changes everything

First, fast Internet is essential to making today’s cloud services work properly. It takes a decent internet connection to make use of SaaS apps from Dropbox to Google Docs, and making them as good as desktop applications requires another level of speed altogether.

Perhaps even more importantly, gigabit Internet will enable innovation on the next generation of services, which history shows will consume exponentially more bandwidth than previous iterations. The Fiber to the Home (FTTH) Council, for example, cites telemedicine and tele-health as prime beneficiaries of speedy Net access. And it’s obvious that truly fast Internet makes long-distance collaboration significantly easier and less annoying.

Finally, the faster the top speeds, the better for everyone, even those who can’t afford it. Competition from fiber to the home will drive down the cost and boost the speed of other Internet connectivity options, improving Net access for everyone.

First-hand testimony

I can only dream about gigabit speeds from my home office, but even upgrading to 50 Mbps Internet access last year delivered surprising benefits. I had thought my previous 10 Mbps service was plenty fast, and assumed the differences would be subtle at best.

I was quickly proved wrong.

As soon as the new service started, I noticed Web pages loading almost instantly, with no delays for big images to pop up. Video streams started right away, with significantly less waiting. Even very large files showed up in near real-time, not hours later.

My tablets accessed content so fast it felt like they had gotten massive processor upgrades. They became noticeably more useful – and so they got more use. I started watching more video on my devices and less on my TV set. I was willing to store more of my files on the cloud, because I was confident I wouldn’t have to wait to retrieve them.

Remember, that’s only 50 Mbps. Plenty of people have faster service than that already, but the upgrade made a huge, unexpected difference to me. Google is biased, of course, but it’s right about this: 100 times faster Internet really does mean "100 times the possibilities."

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