There’s more demand for fast internet connections than ever, and companies like Kirkland-based Wave Broadband are scrambling to meet the needs of consumers.
A phone call and a quick trip online to check that email inbox used to be quite enough internet time for one evening.
But now Netflix has thousands of shows to stream. Facebook always has a new update from the latest friend to have a baby. Emails roll in constantly.
All of that requires a much stronger, faster network connection than ever. Companies in the Puget Sound region are scrambling to meet that demand, building hundreds of miles of fiber broadband inching ever closer to homes and offices to bring the fastest possible internet connection.
For some, that means being able to access gigabit speed, or being able to download and upload 1 gigabit of data per second. “Gig” has become the latest buzzword — as in get gig speed and be able to stream as many movies and games as you want.
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Broadband providers are meeting the growing demand in two ways — by getting high-capacity fiber strands inside homes and businesses, or as close as possible, and by developing technology that enables existing copper and coaxial cables to handle gig speed.
Wave Broadband, a Kirkland-based provider, recently raised $125 million to build more than 100 miles of fiber a month up and down the West Coast. A relative newcomer to the telecommunications big leagues, Wave is now focused largely on building fiber infrastructure to businesses and apartment buildings.
It faces steep competition from some fellow, smaller companies, as well as longtime leaders Comcast and CenturyLink, which have been investing heavily to upgrade their somewhat-outdated networks.
The flurry of fiber activity comes after the city of Seattle made several attempts to either get a stake in broadband deployment or play a major role in its development. But none of those attempts made much headway, and the city turned its attention toward trying to add more private broadband providers to the region.
Those private companies have moved toward making the region among the best connected. Meanwhile, a new wave of technology could make some of those efforts redundant.
Fiber-optic cables contain strands of glass. They’re ideal for use in carrying information, because white light can be easily transmitted on them, traveling much faster than signals on copper strands. Fiber cables also require fewer booster boxes, because signal strength stays strong over many more miles.
What really makes them powerful is the prism effect — white light can be split into many different colors, about 40 on Wave’s network. Each color can carry 100 gigs of data. That means multiple customers can use the same strand of fiber by using a prism to create another color.
But each strand already has so much capacity that prisms aren’t used that often, Wave CEO Steve Weed said. There’s not much need yet. Weed estimates that 90 percent of Wave’s infrastructure capacity is not yet in use.
In fact, as the current market stands, gigabit speeds may be superfluous, even in houses with a couple of serious gamers.
“Gigabit is very much overkill for almost anybody, especially home users,” Jonathan Spiva, founder of Seattle IT firm 74bit, said. Spiva works with large tech startups in the region, and none has gig speed.
Still, with so many more devices and sensors being connected to the internet, demand for high-speed capacity is growing rapidly.
Plus, copper and coaxial networks used by phone and cable companies just aren’t as strong, and as families and businesses consume more data, those companies are working fast to upgrade networks.
“Old legacy networks weren’t designed to move a lot of data,” Weed said.
Enter the competition
That’s why CenturyLink started building out a fiber network in earnest two years ago. The company, based in Monroe, La., has had a fiber backbone — which connects miles of infrastructure — for quite a few years, but it is now expanding into residential neighborhoods, and dropping fiber directly into homes.
“Each customer has their own, individual connection,” said Sue Anderson, CenturyLink’s vice president of operations in Seattle. “We know speeds are going to continue to increase.”
Fiber to the home, or so-called “last-mile fiber,” is still a rarity for most residential uses. Most fiber networks go to a node in a neighborhood, and connect to existing copper wires in the home. That slows down the connection for the last little bit.
CenturyLink drops fiber into a home after a customer requests service. More than 220,000 homes in the region can get gigabit speed, Anderson said.
Wave is focused on bringing last-mile fiber largely to businesses and apartment buildings in the Seattle area, capitalizing on serving the most number of customers at once.
Building fiber is expensive, costing about $100,000 per mile, some industry experts say. An analyst estimated in 2013 that a high-profile Google project announced then would cost Google $94 million to install fiber in Kansas City.
The city of Seattle emphasized its commitment to bring more broadband options to the area a couple of years ago, after a deal for a private-public broadband partnership fell apart and people continued expressing fatigue with Comcast, the dominant provider.
Things have changed in the past two years, said Michael Mattmiller, the city’s chief technology officer.
“CenturyLink and Wave G are serving well over half the city with gig-speed connections,” he said.
Smaller companies, such as Atlas Networks, Cascadelink and Accel Net are also connecting businesses directly to fiber.
The city leases out some of its fiber infrastructure in Belltown, but Mattmiller said it is mostly focused on increasing competition between providers so customers have more choices. Many factors, including federal funding programs that have shut down, make city-operated broadband “too high a risk for the city to take on its own.”
Comcast is building its fiber network closer to homes, but it has found another way to bring gig speed to Seattle customers. The company announced last month it has developed technology to deliver gig speed over the existing coaxial wires inside homes.
The technology, called Docsis 3.1, is expected to be available to any local Comcast customers in early 2017.
“When you look at opportunity and where you can go, fiber makes a lot of sense,” said Chris May, Comcast’s vice president of engineering in Washington. “But coax has a lot of runway. That piece of coax can handle multiple gigs of traffic both in downstream and upstream on its own.”
Though fiber construction is expensive, cost is often not the largest barrier to expanding fiber networks.
Four years ago, Wave had 20 people on its design and permitting team. Now that number is 200.
The company launched a pilot program two years ago in Seattle’s Eastlake neighborhood to bring gigabit speed to residential homes by directly connecting fiber to the home. That project is still live in Eastlake, Weed said, but the company isn’t expanding the pilot in Seattle for now.
The company couldn’t get permits fast enough to continue building directly to the home, he said.
Wave is working on similar pilots in other cities, and focuses laying cable underground and reaching businesses and apartment buildings in Seattle.
The company now has 1,300 employees and 6,000 miles of fiber stretching from north of Seattle to south of San Francisco. Its long-term strategy, Weed said, is to get fiber to the home for all customers.
Demand for permits has definitely increased within the city, Mattmiller said.
“We’ve had conversations in the city and we’re making sure to increase capacity for permit processing,” he said.
An outside competitor
More competition may be coming for Seattle broadband providers, from their old friends — the telecom giants.
Phone companies are testing a wireless technology that would bring connections from street poles into the home without any cables. The technology, which would use a fifth generation of wireless technology called 5G, could be a big boon for the wireless industry.
It would use a transmitter, receiver and airwaves, but Bloomberg reports it still has hurdles to overcome before it’s a widespread reality, though telecoms are seriously working on it.
“It just shows how fast the broadband market is changing now,” Mattmiller said.
The new technology, if it rolls out nationwide, wouldn’t make all the fiber work redundant, he said. Instead, it would just add another option for customers to choose.