CHAMPING AT THE GIGABIT
Consumers in Nebraska could win big in the years ahead as internet providers invest in new delivery systems and compete to lure customers with the promise of faster speeds at reasonable prices.
Several fiber-optic internet providers are moving into the metro Omaha area for the first time, hoping to peel off home-internet customers from existing providers.
Lincoln-based Allo is expanding into La Vista, Papillion and Gretna; Fastwyre to Bellevue; and Google Fiber to Omaha.
The companies claim they will be able to deliver fast, more reliable service to meet growing consumer demand for speedier uploads and downloads.
Meantime, new technology is allowing companies that offer phone service to get into the home-internet business.
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Verizon, for instance, is offering wireless 5G fixed home internet and wooing customers with speeds faster than such companies could offer in the past.
This surge in company interest appears driven in part by the explosion of internet use during the pandemic, which has continued to grow since then, but also by companies' belief that there is money to be made in eastern Nebraska.
According to the internet analytics company Open signal, the nation's consumers currently have more choice of broadband providers than ever before.
"Now, cable companies and incumbent telephone companies face competition from new fiber overbuilders and fixed wireless players using the latest 5G technology," the company said last fall.
The term overbuilders refers to those companies that are coming into markets already served.
Companies across Nebraska are making a substantial investment in the future, said Brad Moline, chief executive officer of Allo.
In the next five years, Moline said, "there will literally be more than a billion dollars invested in the state of Nebraska, between BEAD funds and the people doing metro Omaha and some other places in Nebraska."
BEAD funds — the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program — are federal dollars aimed at providing service to unserved areas. But Moline said that most of the investment on systems across the state will be private.
Joe Supan, writing for the tech publication CNET, suggested in a May 6 article there's room for competition in Omaha.
"There's a lot to be said for Omaha, Nebraska — the affordable cost of living, great music scene, low unemployment — but highspeed internet isn't exactly one of them," he wrote.
While Omaha has the 39th largest population in the country, he wrote, its median internet speed is 67th with 191 megabits per second download — a speed that was reported by Ookla, a company that analyzes data from actual user speed tests online.
To put that in perspective, the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act says that places with less than 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds are "unserved." Those with less than 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up are underserved.
So it's not that consumers can't already get fast internet, compared to those levels. But internet technology is getting even faster to meet rising demand for moving more data.
Supan wrote that fast cable internet is available virtually everywhere in Omaha through Cox.
And CNET picked Cox as the city's "best overall provider."
Cox officials note that the Ookla speed test found the company had the fastest and most reliable download speeds in Omaha. They say they are taking steps to stay competitive.
According to officials, Cox is actively building fiber-to-the-home to provide multi-gigabit symmetrical speeds on the latest technology "and will share more details soon."
The company said it has invested more than $11.1 billion over the last 10 years to expand and upgrade its network, and it is continuing to bring multi-gig speeds, powered by fiber, to customers in Omaha.
Cox, as well as Fastwyre, Allo, Google Fiber and Verizon, all say they can deliver 1-gigabit-per-second downloads — and some even faster than that. (A gigabit is 1,000 megabits.)
Last fall, the Omaha City Council voted to approve a license agreement for Google Fiber. Google Fiber officials say they anticipate beginning construction this summer and will likely offer service to its first Nebraska customers in early 2024.
The project will take several years to fully complete, but the company plans to offer service in new neighborhoods as segments of the network are completed.
Rachel Merlo, head of government and community affairs for Google Fiber's central region, said Google has a long history of investment in the Omaha area, with two existing data centers and another under construction.
Merlo said the company welcomes the competition among providers, saying "it drives us to innovate, strive for best-in-class customer service and maintain affordability."
Asked what drew Google Fiber to the Omaha market, she said the company is "always looking for communities where we believe there is demand that has yet to be met; Omaha is one of those communities."
Merlo said the future of internet service is "multi-gig."
In the current world of remote work, streaming, uploading, downloading and transferring high-resolution files, reliable and fast internet connections "are non-negotiable," she said.
She noted a report from OpenVault on U.S. broadband internet usage. The report found that 15% of households across the country are now connected to gigabit internet service. Also, she said, the Fiber Broadband Association projects that by 2030, a four-person household will require more than two gigabits in download speed.
Allo, founded in Imperial, Nebraska, 20 years ago, serves communities in Nebraska, Colorado and Arizona.
Moline, its CEO, said the evolution of broadband "isn't just to make Netflix a little bit faster."
The internet impacts how we work, how we learn, and how we stay healthy, he said.
He said the perception is that only rural areas have poor internet. But, he said, in the small community of Bridgeport, Nebraska, which Allo serves, people have an internet experience "50 times as good" as in Omaha.
"Shouldn't the largest tax base — the largest economic driver in the state being Omaha metro — have the same thing?" he asked.
Moline said, however, his company is focusing on small and midsize communities and has no plans to enter the city of Omaha.
He pointed out that the Ookla Speedtest showed his company performs well in Lincoln.
Among the nation's 100 most populous cities, Raleigh, North Carolina, took the top spot as the fastest median download speeds over fixed broadband at 255.41 Mbps.
Lincoln, Nebraska, was fourth, registering speeds of 245.10 Mbps for download and 92.99 Mbps upload, with Allo the fastest provider.
Nebraska ranked 33rd fastest for broadband download speed, coming in at 170.12 Mbps — and an upload speed of 26.2 Mbps.
While people debate the best way to deliver internet, Moline says fiber is best, combining reliability, durability, efficiency and performance.
He doesn't consider the mobile wireless companies so much a competitor as a partner in making sure everyone in society is connected.
And he said he welcomes the entry of Google into Omaha. Its investment will make the whole region better, he said.
"What does that do? It makes it a better place to work. It's a better place for health care, better place for learning, better place for entertainment ... it adds to the quality of life," he said.
Surveys of U.S. consumers show that internet usage has been rising, despite the pandemic being over, he said.
Fiber, which can move vast amount of data quickly, can keep up with that demand, making it "future proof," he said.
Companies like Verizon and T-Mobile, meantime, have gotten into the home-internet market.
The service that Verizon calls 5G Ultra Wide Band is relatively new and consumers are just getting to know it, said Karen Schulz, director of corporate communications.
Historically, Verizon's 5G has been a mobile service for cell phone users, she said.
The new 5G system they've developed has so much capacity, she said, that the company has been able to introduce a home-internet service on the same network.
Because it's wireless, she said, it doesn't require running fiber or cable to your house.
"Our router, you just pull it out of the box and plug it into any outlet in your house, and it attaches to that wireless network which we have set up that now has all of that extra capacity," Schulz said.
"So it's very, very fast setup, and it doesn't require that last mile to the home of cable or fiber for the connection."
Traditional home internet has a router in the house that attaches to fixed fiber or a cable link from a provider.
The company is developing the system nationwide, not just in Nebraska.
"We've been doing this for a little over a year, and we have several million customers on using that home internet connection," she said.
She said the company is "very much an insurgent, very much a disruptor in this industry."
Verizon estimates that by the end of 2025 it will cross 11 million home subscribers with home broadband service.
Schulz said Verizon's 5G home service has comparable speeds to the wired services that have traditionally been in place in the market.
"We have max download speeds of up to a gig, typical download speeds around 300 Mbps, which is quite honestly far more than you would need for what one would consider typical household activity," she said.
She said that because their system is not a permanent wired system, there is room for future growth, she said.
In Gretna, meantime, workers can be seen around the city burying the fiber-optic cable through which Allo will serve the community.
They are unloading orange conduit, which looks like a heavy-duty garden hose, from giant spools and burying it in holes drilled at the roadside.
Burying it can be a delicate task in cities, where workers have to avoid hitting existing gas, water and electrical lines. The workers have to thread the conduit, guided by fields of orange, red and yellow flags marking utilities.