Ookla, a web metrics company, currently pegs America at 31st and 46th respectively in terms of average download speed and upload speed, behind countries like Estonia and Lichtenstein. The United States also has the dubious distinction of being one of the few nations with an abundance of bandwidth (i.e., the capacity to stream videos, download files, and surf the web) but sky-high prices for service. A particularly egregious factoid: As recently as 2012, U.S. subscribers to internet triple-play bundles – phone, cable TV, and internet – paid four times as much as French subscribers for 1/10th of the network speed.
Perhaps the biggest reason America lags so far behind the rest of the world when it comes to internet speed is a lack of competition compounded by restrictive laws and expenses. Internet service providers (ISPs) have for years persuaded state legislators to shut out competition, and deploying fiber is hardly an affordable undertaking.
No matter the extent to which ISPs price gouge and underserve regions, municipalities in 20 states are prohibited from rolling out services to compete with area incumbents. Legislation in many cases mandates impossible benchmarks and imposes undo operating costs on town-run networks. Some, like the recently proposed rule in Kansas, outright ban municipal networks used for anything other than internal projects.
Cost is another barrier to would-be providers. It’s in many cases twofold; installation forms the bulk of expenditures – analysts estimated it cost Google alone $84 million to lay fiber to 149,000 homes, and $500 to $674 to connect each residence – but it’s easy to rack up legal fees too.
Dominant ISPs aren’t afraid to batter newcomers with dozens of frivolous lawsuits in attempts to delay expansions or hurt their bottom lines.
Considering competing with entrenched cable giants is a nearly Sisyphean task. And it’s no wonder the industry has been monopolized by companies like AT&T and Charter. And unsurprisingly, things aren’t looking up: Comcast and Time Warner are in the process of convincing regulators to allow a merger of the two companies, which would result in the formation of a single entity with control over 37% of the national broadband market.
A part of that market is Northeast Ohio. In the foreseeable future, the region will remain firmly in the clutches of one or two broadband providers. Hope of citywide high-speed connectivity at a palatable price point exists in the form of ventures like Google Fiber and the network in Chattanooga, Tenn., but progress locally has been comparatively slow. Why the holdup? Mostly, it boils down to logistics.
One Cleveland institution has long been on the bleeding edge of the high-speed internet revolution: Case Western Reserve University. By 1989, the school offered 10Mbps Ethernet through every outlet with fiber, speed more than twice as fast as the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) definition of broadband (4Mbps). In 2001, the network received an upgrade to 1Gbps, and earlier this year became the first university join a 100Gbps network that will link institutions across the state of Ohio. To put those speeds into perspective, an HD movie would take roughly 40 seconds to download on a 1Gbps network. 100Gbps would be enough to download 150 movies instantaneously.
Few beyond students and university researches benefited from the increases in speed. Four years ago, though, Case announced intentions to extend its high-speed internet beyond the lab. Christened the “Case Connection Zone,” the project would have provided superfast fiber internet to residents, businesses, and public facilities on Hessler Road and Hessler Court as part of an experiment to observe the effects of high-speed internet.
Since that time, the focus has shifted from the Case Connection Zone to OneCommunity, a nonprofit foundation helping to grow high-speed internet in Northeast Ohio. I spoke to CEO Lev Gonick, who also oversaw the Case Connection Zone as former vice president for Information Technology Services at Case. Bret Lindsey, president of OneCommunity’s for-profit subsidiary Everstream, joined us.
I asked Gonick first about the Case Connection Zone. Back in 2009, he hoped the university would one day connect 25,000 residents. Today, a fraction of that total – the inhabitants of 100 residential buildings - are connected. Gonick says the gap is partially the result of funding that didn’t pan out (Case’s grant proposal to the FCC was turned down), but also because university researchers were able to meet their scientific objectives without a larger “sample size,” so to speak. “The goal was to explore what difference very high-speed connectivity would make to the residential experience,” Gonick told me. “Case Connection Zone was to show the art of the possible.”
The data collected is encouraging. Beyond the obvious — “People do not want to go back a slower network,” Gonick said — some of the effects of high-speed Internet were socioeconomic. Turnover in the neighborhood fell and home prices went up. “A colleague of ours has moved into one of the houses because he can use it as an office,” he said.
Other areas have yet to see gains from high-speed broadband, but Gonick thinks that doesn’t mean the potential isn’t there. He is, as he was more than four years ago, a firm believer in the potential of high-speed broadband to revolutionize the healthcare industry. Doctor-to-patient teleconferencing could be a boon, Gonick told me, because it will help people in some cases “bypass the 4-hour wait to get into the clinic” and reduce the cost for those with limited mobility to see a medical professional. Apps like Skype and Facetime won’t cut it – programs with the visual fidelity required for doctors to “look into someone’s eyes and ears,” Lindsey chimed in, requires a faster-than-average connection.
The benefits of fiber may be obvious, but so are the obstacles. Ohio may not have the bureaucratic red tape other states around the nation do, but wiring isn’t any cheaper here.
For its part, OneCommunity has made significant headway. Since its founding in 2003, the nonprofit has laid more than 2,000 miles of fiber spanning 24 counties, 111 miles in Cuyahoga County alone. Even with the help of federal grants, though, the organization finds expansion financially straining. Gonick said, “We’re making [OneCommunity’s] network available to everyone that wants to use it, but bringing fiber to the home is an expensive proposition.”
Still, OneCommunity is finding strategic ways to extend its existing infrastructure to surrounding areas. Last year, LaunchHouse, a startup incubator, became one of the few businesses in Shaker Heights to leverage fiber internet. And it’s going further: LaunchHouse, in addition to providing internet to entrepreneurial housing behind its 23,000-square-foot facility, recently extended its partnership with OneCommunity to deploy fiber to buildings along the Lee/Chagrin corridor, creating the first so-called Fiberhood in Shaker Heights.
The agreement exemplifies the business accelerator’s internet philosophy. “Everyone should have access to gigabit fiber,” said Todd Goldstein, co-founder and CEO of LaunchHouse. Goldstein, who’s incredibly bullish on superfast networking, said people need only be made aware of the advantages of fiber to start demanding it. “On a [slower] T1 line, it chokes when everyone is using it. Gigabit allows it to function.”
Goldstein places the blame for the dearth of high-speed services squarely on incumbents. “Time Warner … and AT&T are not going to [offer] it,” he said. “They don’t invent the next innovative technology because they can’t turn on a dime.” They result is something we’ve all experienced: “When I come home at night, I want to throw my computer at the wall because the internet is so slow.”
LaunchHouse sees broadening fiber’s reach as philanthropic service to the surrounding community. “We saw an opportunity to connect people, to try and connect people.”
LaunchHouse isn’t the only establishment OneCommunity has worked with. FlashStarts, an incubator based in Cleveland, was connected last year. And the ISP has plans to wire the Fairmont Creamery, a mixed usage complex with space for apartments, shops, and offices, with fiber upon its completion.
Josh Rosen, a development partner on the Creamery development project, said contracting OneCommunity was an easy decision. “I think that businesses and offices, especially those dealing with large files, are looking for high speed internet as a critical amenity when they device where to locate,” he said. Rosen also considers high-speed internet a selling point for the living spaces. “I think it is especially helpful for those who want to work out of their homes and perhaps cut down on commuting to the office or working from an office,” he said. “When I explain [to potential renters] that [they] can have internet 10-times faster than Time Warner, it makes an impression.”
“One day, fiber optic will become a global standard,” Gonick predicts. “What is the price of not accelerating that deployment?”
He believes the possibilities of fiber are difficult to fathom for many people, especially when distilled down to a virtual speed test. But he says the benefits – economic, educational, and somatic – may help to persuade those on the fence of high-speed internet’s importance.
Gonick asks, “If health care improves in part because of fiber, how long are we going to wait? If a school can begin to leverage next-generation internet in interesting ways, how long are we going to wait? The future is around leveraging fiber optics for the things that really matter: education, health, and economics.”
Closer to home, Rosen believes fiber may play an essential role in Cleveland’s revitalization. “I’m not sure you can ever achieve greater social equity in Northeast Ohio unless you can improve all types of infrastructure,” said Rosen. “Part of that infrastructure is fiber and creating high speed neighborhoods.”
Compared to other nations, the speed and expense of broadband internet in the US isn’t anything to write home about.