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Should you care that Comcast is going to offer 2-gigabit Internet service in the the Twin Cities?

Clearly the gig race is on. But what can you actually do with hyper-high-speed Internet service? And how much is it going to cost you?

Comcast says it will have its service available to every existing customer within one-­third of a mile of one of its “nodes” by the end of the year.
REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Last week, Comcast, invariably one of the country’s least­ appreciated companies, announced that in response to CenturyLink and USInternet beginning to offer 1-­gigabit Internet residential service to chunks of the Twin Cities metro, that it would be offering … 2-gigabit service.

Clearly the gig race is on. Comcast says it will have its service available to every existing customer within one-­third of a mile of one of its “nodes” by the end of the year. That, they say, adds up to 600,000 households.

But before the early adopters and geeks even stop their cheering, high-­fiving and noogy­ing, the rest of us have probably asked someone, “That’s great, I think. But what does it really mean? What is one ­gig going to give me that I can’t get now at 1/10th the speed?”

One-­gig Internet is kind of like the guy who is inordinately proud of his 600- horsepower sports car. You think, “Cool. But what can you actually do with that thing? You know, without getting arrested?”

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And while we’re at it, what are Comcast, CenturyLink and USInternet going to charge for this seriously enhanced new service? Broadband Internet may be considered pretty much a basic utility these days, but the mythical average consumer — emailing friends and acquaintances, buying GroupOns and trading cat videos — needs a better reason than “that’s cool” to spend even a dime more for Internet service.

None of the three companies bringing the service into the Twin Cities cares to get too specific about either pricing or new realms of service.

“We choose not to discuss that for obvious competitive reasons,” says Comcast spokeswoman, Mary Beth Schubert. Ditto CenturyLink and USInternet.

A Geek Squader at a suburban Minneapolis Best Buy grinned widely when asked what more the average residential schmoe, even someone who has fallen into a helpless infatuation with Apple TV/Roku streaming service, will get by upgrading to 1-­gig Internet? Apparently it wasn’t the first time he’d been asked the question.

“Nothing much, really,” he said. “It’s overkill. Maybe if someone is offering 4K video or if you want to download a movie it’ll make a difference. But there isn’t much 4K offered right now and most people stream movies, which play just fine the way things are. If you’re a small business or you’ve got 10 kids all gaming at the same time, then maybe you’ll need it. But otherwise there isn’t a lot more you can do with 1 gig, or 2 gig, right now.” (Reporter’s note: The Geek Squader asked to protect his name, because he’s not supposed to be talking to the press. But I drove out because Best Buy uses a cumbersome e­mail “request” process for all media inquiries, and that had proven to be a dead end.)

The key phrase in the above comment is of course, “right now.” The revolution in real-time interactivity comes when the gigabit universe expands well beyond the early adopters. When (picking a number here) 40 percent or more of your Internet acquaintances are also using gigabit (or more) bandwidth, HiDef “phone” conversations, even multi­-person conversations, (think: sister chat, on­line dating, book clubs, routine event planning) become a reality. Likewise, long­-promised telemedicine, (“Lean a bit closer to the screen and say, ‘Ahhhh’”) as well as the fully interactive classroom with teachers beaming in from far “off­-campus” able to interact with individual students in full HiDef. That’s a qualitatively different world.

Two years ago, Jake Brewer, a chief strategy officer for Fission Strategy in Los Angeles wrote:

The next generation ‘gigabit’ Internet is not only about going faster, it’s about completely changing how we approach everything from education to health care, as we transition to an Internet of Immersive Experience. In the early twentieth century, many families whose homes were being connected to the electric grid wanted only light bulbs, because light was all they knew electricity could ‘do.’ There was little, if any, awareness that electricity would ultimately power almost all the “applications” around us ­­ fundamentally changing every single experience we have in our homes, businesses, and lives. The same kind of transformation will be powered by the gigabit Internet, and it’s short­sighted for journalists and policy­makers to focus on Internet speeds alone. 

Kansas City’s experience

Google’s “free” fiber optic/gigabit experiment in Kansas City has made KC an incubator for the gigabit revolution, such as it is. “I would have to say that the killer app, the service that makes it irresistible to most of the households hasn’t materialized yet [2½ years since being launched],” says Scott Canon, who has covered the issue for the Kansas City Star.

What has happened is that Google’s initiative jump­started competition from the usual big players and some smaller ones, with essentially everyone offering higher speeds at the same or modestly increased prices. Canon says he has Google Fiber in his home, but can’t say garden-variety home entertainment has changed dramatically, other than the freedom from buffering delays when streaming Netflix. “With the bandwith I’ve got, I suppose I could stream three HD movies to three different rooms of my house at the same time. But I haven’t.”

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The entertainment revolution, where couch tubers could use 1-gig Internet to select their own camera angles for live concerts or sports events, hasn’t arrived, yet. But again, the expectation is that the gigabit Internet has a tipping point, where enough people, or enough of the right people, are plugged in so that the revolution begins with intensity.

“One of the interesting ideas that might work that the Kansas City library is experimenting with is the remote use of their computers and software,” says Canon. “For example, I might want to Photoshop something but I don’t want to spend $500 for the full Photoshop program. So, with gigabit Internet, I connect my home screen to the library’s computer and software and do what I want to do, letting their computers handle all the work.”

As Canon has reported, Google’s presence in Kansas City hasn’t exactly created a stampede of demand. As of this past March, Google had 30,000 subscribers in the KC metro. Their biggest impact may be forcing the Time­Warners of the world into upgrades they had previously dragged their feet over while holding down prices. With a roughly $70/month charge for Internet only and $120 with their TV package, Google has kept Time­Warner and other players in pretty much the same ballpark in terms of cost.

Prices for Twin Cities service from the local players can be expected to run in the same range. For the record, CenturyLink’s Joanna Hjelmeland says she expects the 1-gig world to drive “the whole home connection,” the steady buildup of applications that run everything electrical.

“Part of it is just being future-ready, or ready now for people who are early users.” Pricing, she says, will be announced, “sometime this summer.”