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We’ve gotten a lot of questions from our clients about all the Google Fiber buzz. Here are some of our answers:
I’ve heard about “Google Fiber” and then other providers like Time Warner and AT&T announcing faster services in response. What’s the deal?
Google Fiber is a gigabit Internet service being delivered to homes, businesses, and public locations via fiber optic cables. It’s a big deal for a few reasons:
- Google Fiber’s stated speed is a gigabit. A gigabit is roughly 1,000 megabits per second (Mbps), which was an unheard of speed when it was announced. Even today, the chances that you can get a service with such speeds that’s affordable for a household or small business are extraordinarily small; consumer and small business Internet packages still tend towards the 10-100 Mbps range, depending on your market.
- Google Fiber is Google’s first foray into actually providing Internet service to consumers directly, challenging deeply embedded providers like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and AT&T in an otherwise a comfortable market.
- Google Fiber advanced the concept of “fiber-to-the-premises” not just for businesses but for residences, which is a hugely important concept for building the next generation of Internet access. We’ll dig into this some more in a minute.
What is “fiber” and why is it such a big deal?
Fiber optic technology has been around for a long time, but it’s just recently entered the broader public consciousness as a day-to-day product. The basic principle of fiber optics is that data is transmitted as light pulses traveling through a cable made of highly specialized, flexible glass in much the same way that electricity travels over a copper wire like a phone line.
In many ways, fiber optics are what “comes next” after decades of mostly using copper cable for sending voice and information from point A to point B. Some technology that uses copper cables, like the Ethernet cables that you might have at home or work, can move data very fast but only over short distances. If you’re building a very fast network over an area like a whole city or country, your best bet is using fiber.
What’s more, fiber is a very future-friendly technology. While technologies like cable modems are stretching the limits of what can be done with existing copper wire infrastructure, fiber is still much faster even in its most common current form. In the future when bandwidth demands inevitably surpass what we can even contemplate now, the fiber cable being laid right now will be able to scale up with only modest hardware upgrades. That’s something that no existing copper technology can promise.
What is “fiber-to-the-premises”?
Fiber-to-the-premises (sometimes abbreviated as FTTP) or fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) are largely interchangeable terms that mean your Internet provider is actually bringing their fiber optic network all the way into your home or office.
This distinction matters because some other providers may have fiber that comes close to you without actually bringing the fiber all the way to you. Cable companies like Comcast, for example, commonly have fiber optics to their “node” in your neighborhood then using their existing coax cables for the last segment from that node into your home or business. This provides a fairly fast service without the provider needing to invest in the costly process of laying fiber to each and every home and office, but it’s still ultimately leaning on slower, less reliable copper technology to get all the way to the customer.
What do we mean when we talk about “very fast”? I have Internet service right now that seems pretty fast.
Fiber optics can provide much greater speeds than any other technology out there right now. Google Fiber, for example, is being rated at speeds of up to a gigabit (roughly 1,000 Mbps), and no other technology can come close to that. Cable modems like those being sold by Comcast and Time Warner Cable are the closest in terms of pure speed, but they still fall far short on both speed and the ability to provide what’s known as symmetric service, i.e., the ability to send data (upload) just as fast as they can download.
OK, so it’s fast, but what I have now is fast enough for me. Why should I care?
Consider that just a few years ago, a service like Netflix, which offers a huge library of content streamable on-demand and in high-definition, might have been considered a pipe dream. Now, thanks in large part to fast, widely available broadband Internet, we take such a service (and there are many more examples) for granted.
Connectivity technology like fiber-based Internet will not only let existing products and services get better and more reliable, but it will also provide the platform necessary for whatever comes next, even if we don’t necessarily know what that future will look like yet. As more and more devices “get smart” and get connected to the Internet, the demands for both speed and reliability of Internet connectivity will increase accordingly; fiber is about enabling that future and providing the infrastructure for products and services that we can’t yet imagine.
So is everything else obsolete now?
Yes and no. Fiber is definitely the wave of the future. DSL technology, based on old copper phone lines, can’t compete in terms of speed with cable modems let alone fiber; as evidence of this, consider that both AT&T and Verizon have embraced fiber in major markets in spite of their huge existing base of copper phone lines. Cable modems based on copper coax/”cable TV” cables will still be around for a long time because of their ubiquity and their relatively fast speed compared with DSL, but they will be superseded over time as well.
What are the downsides of Google Fiber?
In spite of the media attention suggesting the imminent ubiquity of fiber service, rolling out fiber to one neighborhood — let alone an entire city or country — is a massive undertaking involving permit bureaucracy, capital investments, and serious construction work. Even for cities that are definitely getting Google Fiber like Austin, there will be a lengthy rollout process and no guarantee of complete coverage. Our contacts suggest that even organizations that have been promised Google Fiber service are being told to expect at least 2 years before it is actually delivered.
In the meantime, there are other vendors offering fiber service to those lucky enough to be in their coverage areas or willing to spend money to bring the service to them, but it will ultimately take a long time for fiber to reach the type of install base that copper technologies currently enjoy.
My company has had some kind of “fiber” service for a long time now, and we’re paying a lot for it. How does that figure in?
There are a few things going on here-
First, fiber has always been a relatively high-end technology and so services delivered over existing fiber networks (almost exclusively to large businesses and data centers until recently) are inherently costly. Those costs are dropping over time, which is part of what’s enabling this recent push of fiber into homes and small businesses.
Second, since fiber-based services have traditionally served only those large enterprise customers and data centers, those services have always been a whole different animal than the Google Fiber and similar services coming on the market now. Put simply: not all “fiber services” are the same just because they use fiber technology.
When large companies or data centers go to buy services that connect their offices together or that connect thousands of servers to the Internet, they are almost always shopping for something that comes with some guarantees — guarantees about reliability and uptime, how their traffic will be treated or prioritized in getting between locations, availability of bandwidth, and myriad other technical details.
This point is important because all of the services being discussed in mass media right now — Google Fiber and AT&T’s GigaPower service, primarily — are largely aimed at home users and small businesses. Accordingly, though they are “fiber services”, they are still heavily commoditized services that are generally delivered without guarantees or service level agreements. To quote Google Fiber’s current Terms of Service: “WE DON’T MAKE ANY COMMITMENTS ABOUT THE CONTENT WITHIN THE SERVICES, THE SPECIFIC FUNCTION OF THE EQUIPMENT OR SERVICES, OR THEIR RELIABILITY, AVAILABILITY, OR ABILITY TO MEET YOUR NEEDS. WE PROVIDE THE SERVICES AND EQUIPMENT ‘AS IS.’”
We quote this section not to point out a problem with Google Fiber — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with those terms and conditions for home users and small businesses. All it really means is that Google Fiber users rely on market forces — people won’t want the service if it’s not reliable or doesn’t meet their needs — to ensure that Google Fiber will be a good product, not a specific guarantee from Google. Businesses — perhaps like yours — with many users or whose revenue depends on their fiber services performing to particular standards of excellence, however, may need and be willing to pay more for an “enterprise” service.
This is an easy point to lose in mass media coverage of “fiber” — fiber is fundamentally a technology used to move data from one location to another. By far the most commonly mentioned and easily understood use for it is providing Internet service to homes and businesses. Even so, there are a variety of flavors of service that can be provided “over fiber” — from services suitable for giving a household very fast but ultimately commodity Internet service, to enterprise-quality services that major businesses can rely on for revenue-critical operations.
If you’re considering making the leap to fiber, consult with a qualified IT vendor about the pro’s and con’s of the shift, as well as to discuss the unique needs of your business. The team at IT Freedom is always open for a good discussion.