Telecom companies stampede for share of gigabit internet market

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by Jordan Green

The Triad is part of the second wave in the rollout of ultra-fast gigabit internet.

The 21st Century equivalent of the railroad and the interstate highway is coming to the Triad, with at least two companies stampeding in a race for dominance in the local market.

AT&T has announced plans in early August to expand its ultra-fast GigaPower network to Greensboro at an unspecified time.

And the city of Winston-Salem has ratified an agreement with the telecom giant to bring the GigaPower network to the Twin City with free installation or service at certain community centers and businesses through the NC Next Generation Network.

Almost simultaneously, High Point-based North State Communications announced on Aug. 28 that is introducing gigabit internet in the Triad. The service is available in select locations in High Point and Greensboro.

Gigabit, which refers to the volume of data conveyed per second, enables activities like telecommuting, high-definition videoconferencing and remote health services. The system will also allow uploading and downloading at the same speed. Gigabit internet is about 100 times faster than what is currently available. A subscriber to the service could download 25 songs per second, a typical TV show in less than three seconds and a high-definition movie in 36 seconds, according to AT&T.

When it meets next week Winston-Salem City Council’s general government committee is expected to consider a list of sites recommended by the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce in response to a request from AT&T. The committee has held up approval of the list for two months because of questions from council members about the criteria for selecting the businesses.

Dennis Newman, the chief information officer for the city, told council members that under the NC Next Generation Network agreement, up to 21 community centers would receive free ultra-fast internet with installation costs from $300 to $500, while up to 21 businesses would receive free installation with the option of subscribing the service. Newman said the typical installation cost for a business would be $500 to $1,000. As a bonus, AT&T is throwing in free standard internet service for two low-income apartment complexes.

‘Bandwidth that is relatively inexpensive — that’s as important as rent. Just like the interstate highway system pulled communities together in the ’50s and ’60s, you don’t have to be there anymore. You can be in Winston-Salem and still be in other parts of the world.’ — John Davenport

Davenport, a transportation consulting firm located in the Chatham Building in downtown Winston-Salem and owned by Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board member John Davenport, is one of the prospective businesses on the list submitted by Newman for council’s consideration.

“We have seven offices that all coordinate with our central server hub in Winston-Salem,” Davenport said on Monday. “We already are very dependent on the internet. We videoconference every morning — kind of a ‘tailgate meeting’ for 15 minutes. Faster, more powerful, more robust internet would allow us to do more videoconferencing. With that kind of power we could do a lot more filesharing. The only limitation would be the amount of bandwidth at the other sites.”

From the perspective of businesses considering locating in Winston-Salem, Davenport said gigabit internet will be a significant draw.

“When we’re siting a new office, the availability of bandwidth is absolutely essential for us,” he said. “Bandwidth that is relatively inexpensive — that’s as important as rent. Just like the interstate highway system pulled communities together in the ’50s and ’60s, you don’t have to be there anymore. You can be in Winston-Salem and still be in other parts of the world. I think it makes us more competitive and puts us on par with larger communities.”

AT&T and Google are racing to grab shares in the emerging gigabit internet market.

AT&T launched its GigaPower network in Austin, Texas in December, and recently expanded to Dallas-Fort Worth. In addition to Winston-Salem, Greensboro, Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham in North Carolina, the telecom giant has also confirmed plans to provide gigabit internet in Miami, Jacksonville, Fla.; Nashville, Tenn.; Houston; San Antonio; Kansas City; and San Jose, Calif.

Google selected Kansas City as the pilot city for its gigabit-level Fiber service, following frenetic competition among cities across the country that generated widespread publicity for the company. Google Fiber has also expanded to Provo, Utah and is taking down names and addresses for an imminent rollout in Austin. The tech company is also considering expansion in the Raleigh-Durham area; Charlotte; Nashville; Atlanta; San Antonio; Phoenix; Salt Lake City, San Jose, Calif.; and Portland, Ore., according to a map posted on its website.

Winston-Salem’s selection as a site for gigabit internet came about because of its participation in the NC Next Generation Network. The network is a regional initiative based on four North Carolina universities that are part of a national consortium to promote a federal plan for increased internet speed and access. The four North Carolina universities — Wake Forest University, UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University and NC State University — formed the basis of the regional network, which expanded to include the host communities of Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and Carrboro.

The Research Triangle and the Piedmont Triad’s base of technology businesses, skilled workforce and urban density create market conditions that “should enable a provider to earn an attractive return on investment while offering competitively priced services,” according to the network’s website.

AT&T was recently selected as the vendor after responding to a request for proposals issued by the Triangle J Council of Governments in early 2013.

Mayor Allen Joines said in a prepared statement in June that city leaders were “thrilled” that Winston-Salem is included in AT&T’s rollout of GigaPower internet, adding that the network will advance work in technology and medicine “to new levels of innovation and achievement.”

‘In some cases, such as looking at how animals fly, we’ll scan each high-speed video to slow those motions down so they can be analyzed. The Department of Defense is interested because they want to build airplanes that fly like animals.’ — Richard Phillips

In other respects, elected officials’ enthusiasm has been muted. Councilwoman Denise D. Adams, who represents the North Ward, questioned whether the opportunity for participation in the project was broadly advertised to businesses.

“There are small businesses, as you said, that [have a] need, that aren’t members of the chamber of commerce, and they may not be on certain lists with the [city’s] housing department,” she told Newman in July. “I think we need to make sure just like nonprofits that ask our assistance that the city as a whole has communicated this asset and that everybody gets a fair chance to submit requests.”

Newman said in memo written in response to council members’ questions that businesses were selected based on their need to distribute large amounts of data, uniqueness as community gathering locations, ability to foster the creation of new businesses and inclusion of different types of firms across the city. He said 43 percent of the businesses were not chamber members.

Still dissatisfied with the level of information provided by staff in August, Adams said, “A lot of these sites, I don’t even know of ’em, even some of the ones in my ward.” She added that she would like more information about how many people the businesses employ.

Many of the businesses on the prospective list appeared to be equally ignorant of the opportunity to take part in the initiative. A number of representatives, including Flywheel co-working space, the Center for Design Innovation and West End Mill Works, said they were unaware that their businesses were being considered for the project.

Service is expected to begin in Winston-Salem, Raleigh, Chapel Hill and Carrboro by the end of the year, and in Durham by mid-2015, according to the NC Next Generation Network website.

Information about pricing for individual residents and business owners in Winston-Salem and other NC Next Generation Network cities remains murky. An FAQ response on the NC Next Generation Network site indicates that while AT&T has not made any commitments yet, pricing is expected to be “well below the rates available in the region today” and comparable to Kansas City. Google Fiber is currently advertising gigabit internet in Kansas for $70 per month, and an internet/TV package for $120 per month. North State Communications is similarly advertising gigabit internet for $70 per month, TV for $70 per month, and a combination package for $99 per month. AT&T has said pricing in Greensboro will be announced at a later date.

Richard Phillips, the systems architect at Center for Design Innovation, said his organization plans to equip its new building under construction at the south end of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter with gigabit internet capacity, whether or not they’re selected as a site. The center uses large amounts of data in several of its projects, including stop-motion photography, and gigabit internet would be helpful in sharing files between partnering research organizations.

“In some cases, such as looking at how animals fly, we’ll scan each high-speed video to slow those motions down so they can be analyzed,” Phillips said. “The Department of Defense is interested because they want to build airplanes that fly like animals.”

Phillips predicted that the introduction of gigabit internet will attract more entrepreneurs to Winston-Salem.

“If you have a developer or computer programmer that has an idea that he wants to market, a high-speed connection would allow him to do that rather than to subscribe to high-speed data applications,” he said. “It will come into play with mapping real-time information so that when you hold up your phone it highlights all the businesses around you. Tech companies generally locate themselves in places where there’s better technical infrastructure; it facilitates the work they do.”