Gigabit services taking root, prices dropping


A full-length HD movie

2 gigabit, 12 seconds

1 gigabit, 24 seconds

50Mbps, 8 minutes

100 songs

2 gigabit, 2.4 seconds

1 gigabit, 4.8 seconds

50Mbps, 1 minute and 36 seconds

Sources: Comcast, AT&T, Google, Arris Group of Suwanee

Ed Venglik has built the mancave of his dreams — five big-screen smart TVs, Apple TV streaming boxes, DVD players, Sonos music system, an Xbox, a Wii and remote-controlled lighting.

To run it all, Venglik is dumping his already beefy download speed of 150 megabits per second for download power on steroids. He’s switching to Comcast’s Gigabit Pro — a 2-gigabit speed demon so fast a two-hour high definition movie can be downloaded in 12 seconds or a 30-minute “Parks and Recreation” episode in just two.

“It’s a little over the top,” the married Johns Creek father of three admits. “But I’m just keeping up with the demands of things we want to do quickly.”

Two years ago, 1 gigabit and higher speeds were generally the domain of businesses running multiple computers simultaneously or hospitals handling thousands of medical records.

But search giant Google’s announcement in 2014 that it would bring its 1 gigabit Google Fiber Internet service to metro Atlanta — one of the country’s most wired cities and increasingly a testing ground for new technology — opened the idea of super fast speeds to the masses and sent established internet providers scrambling to beat Google to the punch.

Now gigabit options are spreading across metro Atlanta, though where and when consumers can get their hands on the faster speeds is still spotty.

Gigabit is being offered by Comcast and AT&T in parts of Midtown Atlanta, Norcross, Milton and as far east as Covington in Newton County. Google Fiber, which has started work on its network but hasn’t set any launch dates, promises to bring broadband to several more communities, including Avondale Estates, Smyrna and Brookhaven.

The super speeds are aligning with consumers’ growing consumption of Internet data, experts say. No longer is the Web just a place to surf. It’s where we binge watch “Game of Thrones,” keep in touch with grandparents over Skype or telecommute.

It’s also where security cameras connected to the Internet allow us to keep an eye on our homes while we’re halfway across the world or where we store a lifetime of memories on the cloud.

Talking back to data

“With the Internet of Things, everything is going to be connected and generating data, downloading data and talking back to data,” said Ramnath Chellappa, a specialist in information systems at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.

There are roadblocks to this super highway. The higher speeds in some cases require costly infrastructure improvements to lay the fiber necessary to carry the bandwidth to consumers’ homes, which is why one neighborhood may have it while an adjacent one won’t.

Most broadband modems cannot handle the speed and would have to be replaced, while older computers, operating systems and routers would be incompatible.

And consumers could run into data caps — and face costly overage charges if they exceed them — because of the bountiful speed. Google Fiber, which does not have a data cap, says a consumer can download as much as 250 gigabytes of data in 33 minutes with a 1-gigabit connection. (The cable giants say they may raise or eliminate the caps altogether on the faster speeds).

“For a lot of consumers the reaction will be, ‘All this high speed but yet you’re imposing data caps on me. It’s pretty pointless,’” said David Belson, an industry expert and editor of a quarterly state of the Internet report for Cambridge, Mass.-based Akamai Technologies.

There’s a lot at stake for the cable-internet providers. Consumers are increasingly cutting the cable TV cord — 83 percent of U.S. households had cable TV in 2015, down from 87 percent in 2010, according to consumer research firm Leichtman Research Group. Conversely, about four out of every five U.S. households had broadband in 2015, up for one in every five a decade ago, Leichtman found.

“Pay TV is in a slow to moderate decline, but not to the extent of the hyperbole about ‘cord cutting you read so often,” said Leichtman president Bruce Leichtman, adding that cable companies have been wise to bundle packages to stem to flow.

Comcast, metro Atlanta’s biggest cable and internet provider, said last week it soon plans to roll out modems that can bring 1 gigabit broadband to all customers through existing fiber optic lines. That could get the fast broadband service to more customers than competitors because it doesn’t require infrastructure improvements like digging up streets to lay wire.

Double the gigs

In addition, the Philadelphia-based giant launched its 2-gigabit Gigabit Pro service last year.

“Nobody else is delivering the capacity and speed we do on a widespread basis and any newcomer would need to build an enormous network capable of delivering video and data to provide what we have already built,” said Doug Guthrie, Comcast’s regional senior vice president.

Rival AT&T was the first to launch local 1-gigabit broadband service last year, offering it in at least 15 communities including Atlanta, Sandy Springs, Decatur, Alpharetta, Newnan and Covington. The telecom, which has its digital division in metro Atlanta, on Tuesday added parts of Buford, Roswell, Sugar Hill and Suwanee to its list of 1-gigabit cities.

The growth in competition has affected prices too. AT&T, which had priced its 1 gigabit Gigapower standalone service at $120 a month at its launch, has since lowered it to $70 to match Google Fiber’s price in other markets (Google has not announced how much the service will cost in Atlanta).

Comcast’s Gigabit Pro, which is listed at a hefty $300 a month on the company’s website, actually costs $159 a month, Guthrie said. Comcast has not yet released pricing on its 1-gigabit service.

With the cable giants matching its prices, Google Fiber will distinguish itself with superior customer service, said Fabriola Charles Stokes, Google Fibers community impact manager. She said Google’s is not relying on discounting and promotions for its pricing and that getting answers to problems will be easier than the legacy cable companies.

“A lot of customers don’t like to be transferred five times and tell their story over and over,” Stokes said. “Our customers won’t have that problem.”

Convincing customers

Cable companies say they are improving customer wait times for installation and making package pricing easier to understand.

But before customers shell out for faster speeds, they’ll have to be convinced it’s worth it. Experts say for most consumers so much speed is unnecessary, at least for now.

Major internet service providers in metro Atlanta, which also include Charter Communications in parts of Cobb County, on average offer plenty of speed for most needs — ranging from about 1 megabit per second needed to send a simple email to the 25 megabits required to stream a 4K movie on Netflix. Upgraded speeds of 45 megabits to 105 megabits and beyond are already common.

But our bandwidth needs are rapidly changing, Emory’s Chellappa said. We use it to operate the connected home of smart refrigerators and thermostats, live stream everything we do on the Periscope app or play game online without buffering for that crucial touchdown pass.

Pat Esser, president of Atlanta-based Cox Communications, said the connected home, connected car and connected life is today’s reality. Cox does not serve metro Atlanta but is rolling out a 1-gigabit service in all of its markets nationally and has spent billions beefing up its broadband network. Cox Communications is owned by Cox Enterprises, whose holdings also include The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Eric Schrepel, of Milton, knows the 1 gigabit download he’s getting from AT&T’s GigaPower is far more than what he needs, but he wants to future-proof.

Schrepel said its very frustrating when he loses a connection, especially when he works from home. When the speed would bog down, he would disconnect his wi-fi and use his phone to reach the Internet because it was more reliable.

Not any more.

“Getting 100 megabits per second probably doesn’t make the most sense economically, but given a choice between fast and the super highway, I’d rather have the highway,” he said.

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