Googling Provo: The Tech Giant Adds iProvo to its Fiber Experiment.

By Dan Sorensen

September 9, 2013

How much is a gigabit? This is the question that has been on the minds of many Utahns, ever since the announcement that Google Fiber will be coming to Provo. The service, which Google is expecting to launch by the end of 2013, will bring gigabit internet speeds to Provo residents via a fiber-optic network.

But fiber internet is not new to Utah. In fact, Google Fiber is actually acquiring the existing city-owned fiber network, iProvo. With more than 10 years under its belt and slow adoption rates, many are curious to see if fiber internet will be more successful with Google running the show.

A Troubled History

Government-operated fiber networks struggle to succeed, as cities are often ill-equipped to manage communications networks—particularly as the industry can change rapidly. According to Provo City Mayor John Curtis, iProvo always lacked the funds necessary to upgrade the network and properly market its service to potential customers.

UTOPIA, an open-access fiber optic network that operates in 11 local communities, has experienced similar troubles. The organization is coming up on its 10-year mark and is still operating at a loss—something that is difficult to justify for limited city budgets. Because of ballooning costs and lack of funds, construction of the UTOPIA network has progressed much more slowly than projected, and its subscriber base is also woefully inadequate to support the network.

Google, however, has plenty of revenue to invest in its projects. Once the company takes over the iProvo fiber network, it will replace much of the hardware, a process that will likely reach into tens of millions of dollars. After the upgrade, Google Fiber will offer two services: gigabit internet for only $70 per month or free service at comparable speeds to other internet service providers, like Comcast and CenturyLink.

“As part of our agreement with Google, once all the homes in Provo are connected to the network, Google will offer that home seven years of free internet, after a $30 connection fee,” says Mayor Curtis, who ran the committee overseeing the iProvo acquisition. “That is very significant, as we could potentially be the first city in the world to have every citizen connected to the internet.”

While iProvo may have been ahead of its time, Google could deliver the necessary influence needed to drive fiber internet to success. With that, combined with consumers’ ever-growing appetites for data, Fiber could quickly become a service offered to households everywhere.

The Fuss about Fiber

In the late ‘90s, dial-up internet started becoming more accessible to everyday Americans, paving the way for the dot-com bubble of 2001. When 56K modems were released, they quickly became a necessity for technology aficionados. People everywhere had to have one, as they greatly improved online connectivity—at the time, websites could take several minutes to load in some cases.

A 56K modem is capable of downloading 56,000 bits per second, which was the fastest service offered until broadband was made available. Fiber internet, which can achieve gigabit speeds, or 1 billion bits per second, is more than 17,000 times faster than a 56K modem. And fiber is still 10 times faster than the top speeds offered by most internet service providers today, while costing much less.

“When we think of fiber, we shouldn’t just think of it as a fast internet connection. It’s connectivity for our world,” says Todd Marriott, CEO and executive director of UTOPIA. “These gigabit networks aren’t about what we are doing now, they’re about the technology that we will develop that will shape the future.”

However, many feel that the speeds delivered by Google Fiber are unnecessary. While it is true that most fiber subscribers cannot currently maximize the potential of a gigabit internet connection, that could easily change in the years to come as companies and developers release next-generation applications and services.

“Fiber is a platform to facilitate solutions that can better our lives, from health to education, water and much more,” says Richard Manning, chairman of the board at Utah Infrastructure Agency, an interlocal agency that was formed to borrow money to help pay for building out UTOPIA. “Today, more people are seeing the need for fiber as a faster internet connection because of companies like Netflix and YouTube.”

Cloud companies like Netflix, YouTube and Facebook are increasing the amount of data everyday Americans consume and connectivity throughout the world. In 2012 alone, total YouTube traffic streamed more than 10 million terabytes to users around the world. According to Manning, in the years to come, we could easily see cloud-based applications that provide us with a deeper view of our world through streaming HD video, sensor networks or automated tasks.

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