The name of the gigabit game is fractal hopscotch

28 May 2014 by Steve Blum
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Look familiar?

Cox is the latest major Internet service provider to announce that it’s getting into the gigabit business, saying that upgrades…

…will start with new residential construction projects and new and existing neighborhoods in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Omaha. In all Cox locations, the company will begin market-wide deployment of gigabit speeds by the end of 2016.

If those three cities sound familiar, it’s because CenturyLink has already targeted Omaha and Las Vegas, and Phoenix is one of the blessed 34 cities on Google’s maybe list for fiber-to-the-home (but not CenturyLink’s).

It’s no coincidence. A clear pattern is emerging: in markets where Google or one major incumbent says it’s deploying FTTH (OK, fiber-to-the-something that’ll deliver a gigabit, honest), another telephone or cable company will also stake a claim. So far, Google has only led into markets, and we’ve yet to see one where Google and both incumbents have dangled the promise of a gig.

Undoubtedly, that’s partly because the dominant U.S. cable company – Comcast – has shied away from gigabit promises, but it’s also because of fear of becoming embroiled in a three-way competition. Duopoly works because existing broadband demand can support two winners, but add another and you risk ending up with three losers.

It’s a fractal game of hopscotch. One player tosses a marker onto the map and jumps to it. Another follows. Once there, they’ll repeat the process, neighborhood by neighborhood, development by development and, perhaps soon, street by street.

The number of people that can actually get a gigabit is still diminishingly small compared to the total U.S. market, but competition is forcing incumbents into pushing existing plant into the hundreds of megabits range, which is a significant – and arguably sufficient – improvement for residential service. Those upgrades – whether by Google or AT&T or others – are still limited to cherry picked homes on the high potential side of the divide, but the game is only a couple of years old.

And still accelerating.