Your Complete Guide to Gigabit Technology
What is a gigabit?
Gigabit internet is a bit like an exotic sports car these days. Everyone wants to take it for a spin. But is all that flashy speed necessary for your everyday internet experience? Let’s take a brief look at how fast a gig really is and whether or not you should answer if Google Fiber or gigabit internet provider comes knocking.
Gigawhat? First, let’s be sure we’re clear on our terminology.
Don’t get a gigabit confused with a gigabyte. It’s an easy mistake to make. Just cram a few extra vowels in there and you’ll begin to feel overwhelmed. Breathe. Because the difference here is just a little bit. Literally. A bit is a small measurement—just a teeny, tiny piece of data. A byte is eight bits together. One bit = eight bytes. Both are measurements of data, but one is much bigger than the other and is used to indicate capacity and not speed. For instance, you might have a gigabyte of storage but your internet speeds top out at one gigabit.
Just look at all those zeros. That sounds pretty fast, right?
Let’s give you a frame of reference to understand how that relates to the speeds you currently get from your internet service provider.
On average, internet users in the United States get around 10Mbps. 1Gbps internet provides a connection that is 100 times faster than that. It would mean downloading an HD movie in seconds rather than minutes. Speeds of this velocity have the potential to transform the way we interact online.
Gigabit ethernet is typically delivered to homes on a fiber-optic network. Fiber-optics were developed in the 1950s to assist doctors who were performing procedures with gastroscopes. It wasn’t long, however, until the telecommunications industry realized this new technology had an incredible capacity. Fiber-optics transmit data through pulses of light, usually provided by LEDs, and reflected along a glass or plastic strand of wire that is 1/10 the thickness of a human hair. This makes fiber-optic cables smaller and lighter weight than their coaxial and DSL predecessors, enabling providers to create efficient, swift network connections.
Fiber optics are considered superior for three main reasons:
- Less attenuation (signal loss)
- Less interference
- Higher bandwidth
How Fast is a Gigabit Internet Connection?
Wondering how that translates when we attempt to use the internet for basic activities like surfing, streaming, and downloading videos?
As you can see, gigabit internet speeds can be the difference between waiting 10 minutes to watch that next episode of Game of Thrones in HD or waiting five seconds. Brace yourself broadband users. At 10Mbps, spoilers are coming.
How does a gigabit get to my home?
The internet reaches across the ocean through transatlantic, submarine cables that snake across the oceans. This connectivity is maintained by just a handful of providers called Tier 1 carriers. These carriers are sucking bandwidth straight from the source and selling it in large packets to their customers.
Tier 2 carriers are hitching a ride from these Tier 1 companies in a process we call peerage. You might be surprised to learn that some major companies like Comcast and Virgin are considered Tier 2 providers and do not actually own the huge pipelines that comprise the backbone of the internet. Tier 3 internet providers are even further down the food chain and purchase their connectivity from Tier 2 providers. Some examples of Tier 3 carriers include Windstream and Time Warner Cable.
With so many players drinking from the same hose, you’d think that we’d run out of water. But international Tier 1 carriers like Tata insist that on any given day, nearly 80 percent of their bandwidth capacity remains unused. So, what’s preventing this torrent of speed from reaching your home?
The Last Mile
While the backbone and much of the major infrastructure that supports the internet is built on fiber optics, the connections to residential homes have continued to rely on older technology like copper wires. This is because the expense of digging versus the density of customers was just too high for most major telecommunications companies to make investing in innovation worthwhile. Getting fiber internet to the premises of American households would have involved a costly process of digging up and replacing old lines with high-capacity fiber optics. So while the backbone of the Internet and many of the major distribution hubs that service large businesses were built on more advanced technology, the “last mile” from neighborhood network centers to individual residences continues to be connected by older technology).
Until recently, most major ISPs opted to stick with an approach for residential internet connectivity that was still producing profits. Until Google Fiber and other “Gig Cities” arrived on the scene and forced the issue.
A Brief History of Gigabit Internet
Much of the movement towards gigabit internet began when a challenge was issued in January 2013 by then FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski.
The “Gigabit City Challenge” was formed around the idea that by 2015, all 50 states would have at least one community that was a “Gig City”.
The intent was to get both cities and the telecomm industry to invest in the infrastructure necessary to deliver high-speed internet reliably across the United States. There was ample concern at the political level that internet speeds were lagging behind in the United States in comparison to other developed countries across the world. In 2015’s State of the Internet report, The United States doesn’t even crack the top ten in average connectivity speed.
As a result, long before Google Fiber launched in Kansas, many municipalities attempted to offer gigabit internet. Cities across America have gone about launching gigabit internet in a variety of ways over the past few years.
1: Public Utility Approach
Municipalities invested directly in the infrastructure necessary to access the backbone of the internet and bring gig speeds to their communities. Many cities were motivated by the desire to attract businesses and keep a highly educated populace from moving into more densely populated urban areas. The resulting utilities are cost effective and there are over 50 communities spread across 13 states that have access to municipally owned gigabit internet at a fraction of the cost compared to other ISPs.
2: Private/Public Partnerships
Some cities entered into contractual agreements to provide investment grants and budgeted money that would allow start-ups and smaller providers to build fiber networks in their communities. The resulting infrastructure is now owned by the city but managed by the smaller, local providers they contracted with.
3: Attracting Private Interest
Other cities went all out courting interest from smaller, private companies that allowed them to maintain some measure of ownership of the network, but share the risk and the cost of building the infrastructure for fiber internet.
In response to these grassroots efforts, the large telecoms successfully used hefty lobbying power to discourage this development. Laws passed in over 20 states, including California, made launching publically owned, municipal broadband incredibly difficult. Many of those laws still stand on the books today, complicating the effort to bring faster broadband access to more Americans.
Next Century Cities, an initiative launched in conjunction with the FCC challenge, now has over 144 member cities that have committed and delivered, or are in the process of delivering, one gig internet speeds to their communities. While large, private providers are focusing on making a profit delivering higher speeds to the densely populated areas of major cities, the NTCA (Certified Rural Broadband Association) indicates there are over 74 companies that are providing smaller, rural areas with one gigabit internet.
“…high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it’s a necessity. This isn’t just about making it easier to stream Netflix or scroll through your Facebook newsfeed –although that’s fun, and it is frustrating if you’re waiting for a long time before the thing finally comes up. This is about helping local businesses grow and prosper and compete in a global economy.”
This makes the future of gigabit Internet look like a clash of David vs. Goliath. There has been significant progress made across rural areas to deliver high-speed internet through localized effort, despite legislative intervention. It remains to be seen if these types of municipal solutions will become more popular or if major ISPs will finally decide to invest in the future of high-speed internet and fiber technology.
Do I need a gigabit?
Probably not. For the average user, this kind of bandwidth isn’t necessary. It’d be like paying the mortgage for a 5,000 square foot home when you live alone. Unless you’re planning on keeping a troupe of elephants in there, it’s probably a waste of your hard-earned cash. But that statement has some serious caveats because the way we use the internet is changing.
At some point, we’ll need the extra bandwidth to keep up. You might consider getting a gig if you consistently do the following:
Stream multiple HD videos
HD video by itself is not enough to suck up bandwidth, but trying to stream HD on four or more devices at once can be a challenge for any connection. You’re going to need some speed for that.
Use multiple devices
No, really. LOTS of devices. This is not just one or two electronics. This is an entire home full of tablets, phones, and wireless devices. If your sprinkler system, thermostat, refrigerator, TV, and more have become part of the Internet of Things that makes your home hum, then you may want to consider a beefier connection.
Upload enormous files
This isn’t just a few wedding albums full of photos. This is a wedding photographer’s entire portfolio of hundreds of albums. We’re talking gigantic files here, all hanging out up in the cloud.
Online gaming and virtual reality
We’re not concerned about a little bit of Pokemon or Candy Crush. Gig speeds are for much more robust applications that need consistent internet connection, like virtual reality. Most games are optimized to enable users to play offline and even if they do require connectivity, the problem is usually much more about symmetrical bandwidth (matched upload and download speeds) than it is about speed.
What does a gigabit cost?
While the expense of installing fiber is falling rapidly, it’s still costly so any decision about gigabit internet involves a careful comparison. You’ll need to find a balance between the speed you need and the one your wallet can afford. Take a look at our cost analysis to see how much fiber will cost per bit versus more traditional and widely available delivery methods like cable and DSL.
Average cost per megabit (Mb)
Prices are based on promotional packages from large internet providers for the first 6-12 months. While the trend per megabit holds true (fiber being the cheapest per megabit), long-term pricing will vary based on service and region.
Fiber is still slowly expanding into major metro areas, but we can give you a glimpse of what a typical package might look like. Below, you’ll see an example of several internet service plans in Austin, Texas that offer speeds ranging from 2 Gigs to 45Mbps.
Example packages in Austin, TX:
21% availability in Austin
per month for 12 months
– 400 Mbps –
91% availability in Austin
per month for 12 months
– 24 Mbps –
100% availability in Austin
per month for 12 months
– 50 Mbps –
45% availability in Austin
– 1 Gbps –
45% availability in Austin
– 100 Mbps –
9% availability in Austin
per month for 12 months
– 1 Gbps –
Prices are given as examples only, and would likely vary depending on where and when you called.
While there are plenty of internet options available in Austin, which is considered the fastest city in the world, you’ll certainly pay for the luxury of speedier connections. Whether or not the price tag is worth it is a choice only you can make for your household.
Availability of Gigabit
Where is it now?
As of 2015, statistics indicate that fiber is available in 24 percent of residences across America, but that’s really only part of the picture. If the main concern is faster internet speeds, gigabit internet has a much larger footprint. Just last year, Comcast disclosed that with technology upgrades, they could deliver one gigabit to residential customers reliably via their existing coaxial cable network. Since many ISPs will be upgrading to the modems and advanced technology that enables this, the potential reach of gigabit internet just got exponentially expansive. There are also rumors that providers may be able to use existing copper wires and upgrade them to fiber networks. Sort of. So the future of gigabit may not rely on fiber after all.
Your best chance of being able to experience the giddy internet speeds of a gig is to be located in a major metropolitan area.
While 5G is still a big part of how major telecoms anticipate the future of high-speed internet taking place, it’s not the whole picture. Fiber to the premises will still play a large part in delivering the internet connection speeds the United States needs to drive and sustain a successful economy in the next decade.
Want to see if fiber and/or gigabit internet is available in your area? Enter you zip code below.
The initiative to bring high-speed internet to every corner of the globe is well under way. Now that the United Nations considers the dissemination of information online as a basic human right, it seems we’ve entered a new age of connectivity. Cities all across the country are ushering in a new era of unfettered speed and access, where the internet becomes an engine of growth that will drive every sector of our lives. Mayors across America can publicly pledge their intentions to bring a gig to their community at sites like Nextcenturycities.org. Community leaders are gathering in online spaces like these to commit to a brighter future that’ll ensure high-speed broadband access from sea to shining sea.
Who are the main providers of gigabit internet?
While there is a patchwork of providers all across the United States that are delivering one gigabit internet speeds to small pockets of the country, there are a few main providers in the gigabit market. Here’s a breakdown of the major players with a summary of the areas they service and links to additional information on packages, costs, available speeds, and more.
Comcast has been racing to market a little late with their 2 Gig service called Gigabyte Pro. They’ve had the capacity to deliver, (Comcast demonstrated a 3G connection back in 2013 at the CES in Vegas) but apparently didn’t see it as a worthwhile investment until recently. Comcast offers one gig residentially via their coaxial cable network in 21 states, with a focus on metro areas in California, Washington, Pennsylvania, Florida, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Comcast’s two gigabit speeds, however, are provided by fiber infrastructure and are confined to just a few metro areas.
AT&T says Gigapower is available in 25 metro areas and they offer a coverage map, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where those Gig cities are. If the map is correct, AT&T’s current gigabit service area appears to be focused in California, Florida, and Texas.
While their focus is much smaller and more localized than other major ISPs, Suddenlink is definitely making a dent in the one gig market. They serve 15 major metro areas in Texas alone, with scattered availability across 10 other states.
CenturyLink has made some big promises about fiber availability that have yet to come to full fruition. Currently, they provide one gig service to 12 major metro areas spread across 10 states with a focus on the Midwest and Western regions.
Available in six states and across 11 metro areas, CableOne is turning in a respectable showing with their GigaONE. This is a service area that is mostly focused on the Midwest and Southwestern regions.
Cox Gigabit is powered up in nine states, with 12 or more metro areas served. There is some indication they plan to expand into Phoenix soon, although Google Fiber is also exploring that market. Cox is straddling both coasts with service available in Arizona, California, and Nevada as well as Georgia and the metro D.C. area.
Windstream is a newcomer to the gig game and their reach so far is confined to four states. They do, however, serve a large part of North Carolina with over seven metro areas.
At this point, Google has promised to launch (or already delivered) a gig in the following cities:
- Kansas City
- Austin, Texas
- Provo and Salt Lake City, Utah
- Atlanta, Georgia
Coming soon: Charlotte, Hunstville, San Antonio, San Francisco, Nashville
None of these companies have a large presence or service area in the one gig market, but they are considered major providers in some states due to their extensive, localized coverage.
- Allo (five metro areas in Nebraska)
- Bright House (only available in Florida)
- Frontier (four major metro areas in two states: NC, OR)
- Lightspeed (four major metro areas in Michigan)
- MediaCom (three metro areas) (Link to our page)
- Sonic (seven major metro areas in California)
I can’t get a Gig. What are my other options?
Don’t cry big, salty tears of despair just yet. Even if one gig service isn’t available where you live, you can still get fast internet that’ll be more than sufficient for most households.
Take a look at some of the following types of service providers:
Not all fiber services can actually provide a gigabit, so while your city might not turn up in our database, that doesn’t mean you don’t have access to some pretty swift speeds. Use our zip code provider tool to determine which kind of internet providers service your area.
As we discussed previously, you don’t need fiber to get fast. While fiber is typically speedier due to superior technology, cable can still pull a gig with some effort and investment. Take a look at your local cable providers to determine if one of them might be able to offer the speed you need. Some cable providers that typically top the speed charts include Comcast and RCN. Check availability in your area using the zip code tool below.
You probably won’t get anywhere close to 100Mbps with DSL, which runs on the copper wires that service your phone connection, but that doesn’t mean it’s not adequate for your needs. Unless you are a heavy technology user that streams on multiple devices, you can usually get by with a speedy DSL connection just fine. Check out providers in your area to see the fastest internet speeds available to you.
It’s not optimal, but sometimes satellite internet is the only choice in remote areas. While they do experience weather-related outages much more frequently, satellite internet can reach speeds similar to DSL connections. Use our zip code tool to determine if satellite is the best option in your location.
Enter your zip code to see which technologies are available.
The swift speeds of fiber technology are about much more than being able to pull up Amazon on a whim and check prices in the grocery store. Speeds like a gig can transform the way cities handle energy, conservation, water, traffic, and much more. We refer to this integration of technology that fiber-optics makes possible as a “Smart City”. Cities of the future will rely upon connectivity to anticipate weather-related power outages, manage traffic lights across a complex, responsive grid, and connect residents with real-time communication that could save lives and ensure greater public safety for everyone. This is why municipalities aren’t waiting for Google Fiber to look their way and are heading out to find a partnership that’ll provide the connectivity of the future.
A Profile of a Smart City: Chattanooga, Tennessee
In 1969, Chattanooga, Tennessee was named the “most polluted city” in America. Formerly a passage between the Appalachian Mountains used by Native Americans and in later years, the railroad, Chattanooga had become the depository for an alarming amount of air and water pollution. Its economy floundered, businesses relocated, and citizens became impoverished.
In an effort to revitalize the area, city leadership began a two-decade effort to clean up the air and rebuild the waterfront. On the heels of this development, Chattanooga won a 111 million dollar stimulus package from the Department of Energyfocused on developing a smart grid that could demonstrate the city’s capabilities to offset losses due to power outages. Every year in the United States, over 80 billion dollars are lost to the economy from weather-related power outages. Chattanooga’s share in this loss amounted to around 100 million dollars, so the stimulus package seemed liked an excellent investment for the federal government. As a bonus, it would develop a model other cities across America could follow to develop their own smart grid power systems. Win, win.
Chattanooga’s public power company, EPB, took out additional loans and grants and set about building the fiber infrastructure to bring innovative internet speeds to the city. Currently, Chattanooga is the first city in the Western Hemisphere to offer all residents and businesses a 10 gigabit internet connection. Chattanoogans have been enjoying speeds since 2014 that rival those in Hong Kong for about 70 dollars a month. As a result, the city boasts it has earned over six billion dollars in foreign investment and the moniker of “best town ever” from Outside magazine. It’s a pretty inspiring transformation for a sleepy, little southern city that has now attracted Amazon distribution centers and Volkswagen to relocate their headquarters there.
“The history of the internet and technology has been that you always need more speed and capacity. We have the fastest, cheapest most pervasive internet in the western hemisphere. We believe that gives us an advantage but soon it’s going to be much more the norm and we want to be able to participate in that kind of economy.”
How You Can Help
Looking to help improve connectivity in your community? It’s about more than affording infrastructure. In many cases, existing laws don’t allow cities to develop muni-networks so change is going to involve convincing politicians it’s worth their while to modify policy. A little activism can go a long way. Check out Next Century Cities to determine the policies that are being implemented on a municipal, state, and national level that you might be able to support or advocate for.
Improving access across the nation to broadband is an important part of the Federal Communication Commission’s agenda in the coming year. Take a look at their initiatives to ensure a larger portion of the American population gets to enjoy access to affordable internet. The FCC releases reports regarding the state of the internet annually, including rural broadband access and policies designed to encourage ISPs to provide connectivity to underserved areas.
Want more information about the state of the internet? Akamai invests in producing in-depth, yearly reports on connectivity, security, and access. You can visit their resources to learn more.
Use our zip code tool to determine speeds and packages in your community.
Kaz is a writer, blogger and social media junkie. She uses her tenacity to investigate the best of the Internets.