As we’ve been noting, Google’s arrival into the broadband space has resulted in a flood of other companies proclaiming that they too will soon be offering 1 Gbps services over fiber. While some of these announcements (particularly from sluggish, larger companies like AT&T and CenturyLink) are little more than fiber to the press release (development community deployments dressed up to appear more substantive than they are), some of them are genuine, grassroots efforts to rescue the U.S. broadband industry from the clutches of our beloved cable and phone duopoly.
As a hopeful example of the latter, longtime domain registrar Tucows has announced it’s jumping into the 1 Gbps fiber game under its wireless MVNO brand name, Ting. In a blog post, Ting notes it has purchased a small Charlottesville, Virginia, ISP called Blue Ridge InternetWorks (BRI). BRI, Ting claims, will be the company’s beachhead in an attempt to disrupt the U.S. broadband market one small bite at a time. Ting didn’t release pricing details, but told me in an e-mail it will offer symmetrical 1 Gbps speeds at a “sub-$100 price point.” It also promises to make respecting consumers and net neutrality a priority:
“Tucows believes very strongly in the open Internet. Up until now, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do but educate, agitate and contribute. Getting into fixed access, owning our own pipe, is an opportunity for us to practice what we preach when it comes to the open Internet and net neutrality.”
Ting says it was inspired by Google Fiber, but claims that as a smaller company Ting can deliver a more personal, human touch:
“We admire what Google is doing with and for gigabit fiber Internet access, but for the Internet giant, access is more of a side project. Also, Google is a lot of great things but human scale isn’t one of them. If a smaller, more customer-focused company player like Ting can pull off a win-win in a community like Charlottesville, it bodes really well for small towns and providers all over the country. For the record, we’re confident we can pull off just that, otherwise we wouldn’t start down the path.”
While the fact that Google’s “human scale” is waning (like oh, forgetting about net neutrality to court GOP lawmakers) is certainly true, it’s unclear if Ting can truly disrupt on any serious scale. The company is coming off of the launch of a consumer-friendly wireless MVNO that has done some very interesting things in regards to simple, freemium pricing, though actual consumer interest has been modest so far. If most broadband industry customer satisfaction studies are any indication, there’s certainly room for smaller ISPs that actually value consumer relationships, as opposed to treating their own users with disdain.
That said, the U.S broadband market certainly isn’t free, and if you’ve paid attention over the years, we’ve watched an endless stream of small, consumer-friendly disruptors (does anyone remember ISPs like Speakeasy?) run face-first into a regulatory capture brick wall erected by the nation’s biggest carriers. AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Comcast have worked long and hard at writing state laws that make competing with them difficult if not impossible. If Tucow/Ting is going to enter the fray — even on a small scale — it’s going to need oodles of cash, plenty of lawyers, and some damn good lobbyists.
Google Fiber has succeeded (if we’re going to define success as three partially-constructed fiber cities) in large part because it has oodles of cash to throw at the problem. But even with Google’s deep pockets, it’s unlikely that Google Fiber will ever really impact more than a handful of cities. In that case, Ting’s right in that if U.S. broadband competition is ever going to improve, it’s certainly not going to happen via a dysfunctional Congress and timid/beholden regulators. It’s going to need to be clawed out of the very earth, town by town, piecemeal, by the communities themselves.