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Metro area caught in gigabit gamble

Residents of the Portland metropolitan area who are interested in broadband service might be a little confused about what may be coming to their neighborhoods.Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - CenturyLink technician Willie Mays explains the company's 1 gigabit service equipment in the new Burnside 26 apartments.

The Portland City Council made a big deal out of Google’s announcement that it might bring its one gigabit per second service to the city. The council held an enthusiastic press conference with Google officials in February when the company declared it was considering the city and several surrounding communities for the ultra high-speed service, called Google Fiber.

Since then, the council has passed a special franchise agreement for Google Fiber and agreed it could build the equivalent of relay stations in public rights of way. The company is scheduled to make its decision by the end of the year.

But on July 30, Frontier Communications Chief Executive Maggie Wilderotter said her company has no plans to offer one gigabit service in Portland. Speaking at a local meeting of her board, Wilderotter said that although Frontier’s network is capable of delivering such speed, no one needs it.

But then Mayor Charlie Hales held a press conference Aug. 5 to announce that CenturyLink already provides one gigabit service in parts of Portland. It is among the options offered in some southeast Portland neighborhoods and seven residential buildings.

Company officials told reporters that they were offering one gigabit service without requiring a new franchise agreement or relay stations along streets and sidewalks. And they said the company would expand the service to other parts of town.

“We are building out our existing network, which is already available throughout the city,” said CenturyLink spokesman Martin Flynn.

All this is happening while Comcast, which already serves all of Portland, is advertising that its XFINITY broadband service does everything anyone could reasonably want, including downloading movies quickly and allowing multiple devices to be online at the same time.

So what’s going on here?

Next generation

Part of the answer is, many broadband companies are in the early stages of developing strategies to compete for “next generation” broadband service. Few people really need one gigabit service now. Although it is about 50 times faster than the average Internet connection currently in use in Portland, most residents probably wouldn’t notice much difference. The existing speeds — which range from 15 to 105 megabits per second — are fast enough for most people for now. Prices vary depending on company and option choice.

Only someone moving large amounts of data online — like a high-tech engineer working on a complex project — would benefit much. And a variety of companies already offer this service to those businesses that have a greater need for it.

But Google and CenturyLink are gambling that new technology and devices will substantially increase the demand for faster service in coming years. They include complex video games, multi-player games and ultra high-definition 4K streaming programming — especially if several people are using it at the same time.

Google is eyeing Portland as part of planned nationwide expansion. The company is scheduled to announce what other cities are next in line by December. A company spokesman noted that CenturyLink’s recent announcement will not affect its decision.

The same is true for CenturyLink, which provides one gigabit service only in Omaha, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and limited areas of Portland. The number will increase to 16 cities in coming years.

Even so, only a limited number of people are expected to be willing to pay for one gigabit service, and that is why Google expects to go only into select neighborhoods, at least at first.



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