SUNDAY EDITION | Louisville to get Internet boost from Charter, - WDRB 41 Louisville News

SUNDAY EDITION | Louisville to get Internet boost from Charter, still hoping for fiber

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- In November 2013, Mayor Greg Fischer formally declared Louisville's interest in getting the same type of blazing-fast Internet connections that Google is bringing to a few select cities.

More than a year later, two companies have expressed interest in bringing a fiber “gigabit” network to Louisville, but no work has begun.

As city officials keep their fingers crossed for a new network, thousands of current Internet customers should see a significant boost in speeds when Charter Communications becomes Louisville's new cable provider next year.

Charter – which is set to acquire Time Warner Cable's systems in Louisville and Lexington – says it will boost its “base” download speed to 60 megabits per second. 

That's nothing close to the speed Louisville officials are looking for in a new network. But customers who currently pay about $40 a month to Time Warner Cable for 15 Mbps will get downloads about four-times faster for the same price under Charter's plan.

“What we are trying to do is offer a superior product set at a competitive price,” said Justin Venech, a spokesman at Charter's headquarters in Stamford, Conn.

Ted Smith, who has led Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer's push to get faster broadband, said the upgrade represents incremental progress for Louisville. 

“I think 60 (megabits) is good. It won't be good in five years, but it's good right now,” said Smith, chief of civic innovation for Louisville Metro government.

The median home broadband speed in Jefferson County is 9.3 Mbps, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

Michael Schnuerle, an entrepreneur who deals lots of data, maps and videos, said the speeds Charter promises are “a good first step” that will primarily benefit casual home-users streaming Netflix or YouTube videos.

But it's hardly “the 100-fold leap in speeds” that a fiber network would offer, said Schnuerle, owner of the data visualization platform Your Mapper and co-founder of Louisville's Civic Data Alliance.

A gigabit network like Google Fiber would bring connections roughly 20 times faster in download speeds -- and 200 times faster in upload speeds -- than the most expensive Time Warner Cable residential service tier in Louisville, 50 Mbps.

That's enough connectivity, according to Google, to stream five HD videos at the same time with no buffering and space left over, or to download a full digital movie in less than two minutes.

“If we did get fiber…that just would have a huge impact on the kinds of the business Louisville would have, and attract new entrepreneurs,” Schnuerle said.

But running new wires – whether on telephone poles or underground – is expensive, and Louisville is not on Google's short list of cities that might get its next round of network investments.

New franchises

Earlier this year, the Metro Council awarded franchises to two companies -- one local, one based in London, UK -- that are interested in bringing fiber networks to Louisville. But the city is providing no money for the work, and it's unclear whether either project will materialize.

London-based SiFi Networks is considering wiring the entire Urban Services District – the old City of Louisville – but the company has not been forthcoming with information about its plans.

Scott Bradshaw, the president of SiFi's American division, did not respond to a call and email this week. A spokeswoman for the company said by email: “We are currently completing the feasibility study within Louisville -- once that has been completed we will be able to give you more information.”

Smith said SiFi is studying the landscape of the city – streets, telephone poles, population density – to determine how much it would cost to run fiber lines and the potential payback.

“I don't feel like it's a light-weight interest that they have, because they are spending their own money on it now with detailed engineering work,” he said.

SiFi's website indicates it's also looking at building networks in Fullerton, Calif.; Pacific Grove, Calif. and Nixa, Missouri.

The other new franchisee -- Louisville Internet service provider BluegrassNet – is considering a neighborhood-level network, but BluegrassNet CEO Norman Schippert said it all depends on raising “millions” of dollars – likely from private equity groups.

“It's a lot of money, and it's a lot of risk,” he said. “There is a reason why AT&T and Time Warner Cable have not done it either; it's about the money.”

One big question is how much residential users will pay for a super-fast connection, and whether that will be enough to recoup the costs of running all the new lines.

In Kansas City, Google charges $70 a month for a gigabit connection, but in an online survey, SiFi asked Louisville residents if they would pay $99 a month for that same speed. (The company also asked whether consumers would pay $50 a month for 50 Mbps or $60 for 100 Mbps. )

Susan Crawford, a telecommunications law expert who says there is too little competition in the U.S. broadband market, worries Charter's upgrades are an effort to “corner the market” in Louisville and keep other providers out.

“Long-term, it's not good for the city, because it means that Louisville won't make the upgrade to fiber,” Crawford said in an email to WDRB News.

Charter plans gigabit demo in Louisville

Charter, too, plans to wire an apartment/condo building or a subdivision in Louisville for gigabit service within two years of getting the Louisville cable franchise -- calling it a "demonstration project."

“This marks the first time in the company's history that it has announced plans to demonstrate 1 Gbps service in a community,” Charter told city officials in an Aug. 26 letter. (Document | View Charter's letter to Louisville Metro)

Charter outlined its commitments to Louisville when it was seeking the Metro Council's permission to assume the franchise agreement currently held by Time Warner Cable. Louisville is among a number of markets that will end up with Charter as a result of Comcast's $45 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable.

The deal is expected to close next year, but it's awaiting regulatory approvals, so it's unclear exactly when the changeover will happen.

Smith said Charter would have to bring fiber connections directly to the homes in that apartment building or subdivision, as opposed to the coaxial cable lines that currently bring TV and Internet to residences.

The main difference between the two, in addition to speed, is that fiber allows users to send videos, photos and other files to the Internet just as fast as they can download them – whereas upload speeds are only a small fraction of download speeds over coaxial cable.

Upload speeds matter for things like sending big video files to YouTube, copying high-resolution photos to "cloud" storage and playing video games against other people online, Schnuerle said.

“The symmetric, future-proof qualities of fiber can't be matched by cable,” Crawford said.

Yet, Charter is finding ways to improve service using its existing wires and anticipates offering up to 100 Mbps downloads through cable modems in Louisville, Venech said.

“By being able to use that pipe more efficiently, we are able to do more with it,” Venech said.

MORE: Click here for a map of fiber demand by neighborhood

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