If you’ve ever drummed your fingers waiting for a web page to load or a file to download, you know that the latest apps and devices are only as good as your Internet connection. And yet, in the United States only 7.7 percent of broadband subscribers have optical fiber connections, the fastest and highest quality available.
While there are few "fiber to the home" locations, and they are not exactly metropolitan, tech-savvy entrepreneurs and individuals are flocking to them. They are pulling up stakes and moving to places like Lafayette, La.; Chattanooga, Tenn.; Wilson, N.C.; and Mount Vernon, Wash.
These digital carpetbaggers aren’t just leaving behind jittery Netflix streams and aggravating waits for Twitter feeds to refresh. They are positioning themselves to be more globally competitive and connected.
Optical fiber, most often called just "fiber," allows upload and download speeds about 100 times as fast as what is typically offered in the United States. Web pages load instantly. Video and sound are more realistic. And giant amounts of data can be transferred at the speed of light.
"Most people don’t really get it yet," said Synthia Payne, who moved from Denver to Kansas City, Kan., for a $70-a-month Google Fiber connection. She needed superfast broadband to develop an app called Cyberjammer that allows musicians around the world to jam online and in real time. "People just haven’t conceived of what fiber will mean and how it will change the way we live and work," she said.
It’s sort of like when homes were first wired for electricity. Back then few could imagine it would be good for much more than lighting.
"I just returned from Stockholm where fiber connections are cheap and as available as running water," said Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and author of "Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry & Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age." As a result, she said, developers there are more likely to develop the next generation of technology.
The United States ranks in 14th place behind countries like Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Romania and Macau in fiber connectivity. For a comparison, Ookla’s NetIndex shows Internet speeds by city worldwide. The fastest are in countries where the government has paid for fiber upgrades. But in the United States it has been left to cable and telecom companies, which have been slow to make the investment.
Google Fiber, Verizon FiOS and CenturyLink are among the exceptions, although their reach is limited. Google Fiber, for example, is an option only in parts of the Kansas City area, and there are plans to offer it in sections of Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah.
Stepping into the void have been a smattering of municipalities that have public rather than private utility infrastructures.
It’s why Brad Kalinoski and Tinatsu Wallace moved from Los Angeles to Wilson, N.C. The husband-and-wife team co-own Exodus FX, which provides special effects for commercials, television and feature films like "The Black Swan" and "Captain America."
"We were doing so much business that we had to have increased bandwidth, so we started looking around and found Wilson," about 45 miles east of Raleigh, said Kalinoski, who pays $150 a month for a dedicated fiber connection. In Hollywood, such a connection might cost $1,500 to $3,000, if you can get it at all.
Towns like Wilson, whose economy has suffered after the loss of tobacco and manufacturing jobs, see fiber as essential to their future. "They realize if they want to attract people who are providing the jobs of the future, they have to offer fiber," said Heather Burnett Gold, president of the Fiber to the Home Council, a fiber advocacy group based in McLean, Va., which counts many of these municipalities as members.
A fiber connection prompted Eric Blank to move his 20-employee information security firm, Blank Law and Technology, from Seattle 61 miles north to Mount Vernon, Wash., which built its own fiber network. He pays $250 a month for the connection, versus the $985 a month he paid in Seattle for vastly slower service.
"We investigate computer malfeasance and have to sift through terabytes of data for a single case," Blank said. "The fiber connection is the only reason we are in Mount Vernon."
To avoid becoming digital deserts, cities without public utilities have recently begun to try to nudge telecom and cable companies to install fiber. Los Angeles, Louisville, Ky., and College Station, Texas, have issued formal and informal requests for proposals as well as offered significant tax incentives and other financial sweeteners.
The nonprofit Gig U is working to accelerate the deployment of fiber networks to 37 member universities and their communities. And the digital economic development consultancy Gigabit Squared is working with Seattle and Chicago to create "fiberhoods," or neighborhoods wired with fiber.
Which communities end up offering fiber connections is a "matter of will" and a realization that "these networks will pay for themselves," said Crawford.
"In New York, I pay four times as much as someone in Stockholm would pay for a connection that is 17 times as slow on the download and 167 times as slow on upload," she said. "Most of us are paying enormous rents for second-class service."