CenturyLink, Google tussle over high-speed broadband plans

Photo Credit: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - CenturyLink technician Willie Mays explains the company's 1 gigabit service equipment in the new Burnside 26 apartments.Portlanders interested in broadband service might be a little confused about what’s available or possibly coming to their neighborhoods.

The City Council made a big deal out of Google’s announcement that it might bring its 1 gigabit per second service to Portland. 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 called huts in the 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 1 gigabit service in Portland. Speaking at a local meeting of her board, Wilderotter said that although Frontier’s FiOS network is capable of delivering such speed, no one needs it.

But then Mayor Charlie Hales held a press conference on Aug. 5 to announce that CenturyLink already provides 1 gigabit service in parts of Portland. It is among the options offered in some Southeast Portland neighborhoods and seven residential buildings, including Burnside26, a 135-unit apartment building that just opened at 2625 E. Burnside St.

Company officials told reporters that they were offering 1 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, where CenturyLink has offered slower service for years.

“We are building out our existing network, which is already available throughout the city,” says 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 that anyone could reasonably want, including downloading movies quickly and allowing multiple devices to be online at the same time.

National expansion

What’s going on here?

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 1 gigabit service now. Although it is about 50 times faster than the average internet connection in Portland today, 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 such a service to those businesses which 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. Its 1 gigabit service is only offered in a couple of cities right now, including Kansas City (Missouri and Kansas). The company is scheduled to announce which other cities are next in line by December. A company spokesman says CenturyLink’s recent announcement will not affect its decision.

The same is true for CenturyLink, which only provides 1 gigabit service in Omaha, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and very limited parts 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 1 gigabit service, at least at first. That is why Google expects to only go into select neighbors, at least at first. Even Flynn says CenturyLink’s future investments must make economic sense.

Frontier and Comcast, which has not yet announced it will offer 1 gigabit service, are apparently gambling on its appeal to be relatively limited, at least for the foreseeable future.

Whether that’s the right bet remains to be seen. Fifteen of the new tenants in the Burnside26 apartments have already signed up 1 gigabit service from CenturyLink.

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