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Not So Fast: A Google Fiber One-Gigabit Mystery

Google’s one-gigabit service made a big statement, but what’s still far from clear is who actually uses it, and for what.
September 20, 2013

Google Fiber’s affordable one-gigabit-per-second Internet service in Kansas City has been held out as an instrument of national shaming (see “When Will the Rest of us Get Google Fiber?”). But a few niggling questions remain. Who uses the one-gig service? What can you actually get from it?

I was reminded of these questions last week, when Netflix said Google Fiber customers were getting the fastest service in the nation. Then there was the number: 3.8 megabits per second. Huh?  Well, that’s a measure of the performance of Netflix streams on the network, not of what your  home link is capable of doing.    

Google spokesman Jenna Wandres says Netflix servers can only process streaming video at five megabits per second for high definition content. So that explains the number. But it also serves as a reminder that you only need five-megabit speeds to get high-definition Netflix (assuming nobody else in the house is using the Internet).

How much faster does anybody really want or need? One way to answer that would be to see how many people are actually signing up for gigabit service. Google’s not saying. Google Fiber offers two different Internet speeds—a five-megabit service (for a one-time $300 construction fee) and a one-gigabit service. Wandres said Google won’t disclose how many people are taking which.  

So it’s still murky. A few months ago, there was the tantalizing suggestion that a recent bump-up in speeds in the state of Kansas, as measured by Akamai, might be due to Google fiber (see “Google Fiber’s Ripple Effect”).  And as Google rolls out the service in other cities, including Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah, there’s evidence that competitors are starting to offer better deals. All of that is good.  And it’s also a great headline-grabber for Google.

But what’s still far from clear is how many people are actually taking it, and whether they can do anything with it (after, say, the first 100 megabits, allowing plenty of room for multiple video streams and Wi-Fi losses inside the home).  

For more on how measurements are done, check out this discussion by Akamai’s David Belson.

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