The Big Con of Gigabit Service for Home Internet

By: Terry Koosed, Founder & CEO of Bel Air Internet

There’s a new buzzword in the residential telecommunications business. Gigabit service.

Somehow this has become the new catchphrase to suggest a high-speed connection, the thing that any tech-savvy resident supposedly needs to keep up with their Netflix and Face-Timing.

As the CEO of a boutique Internet service provider across Southern California and Las Vegas, I always keep up-to-date on all the technological developments in our industry. Some are truly fantastic advances that have allowed residents to experience faster, higher quality Internet…and some are just marketing schemes.

Over last year, I’ve shook my head as I’ve seen every cable and phone company from Comcast to AT&T put out press releases about their new “Gigabit service” and begin to plaster the term on their websites, flyers and billboards, promising customers speeds of up to 1 Gigabit (1 Gbps).

Here’s what they want you to believe as you read their ads:

  •     That you need gigabit service (and will actually use the full gigabit)
  •     That gigabit service is faster than anything else
  •    That they can actually deliver 1 gigabit service to you.

Those alleged truths are what I call the three myths of gigabit service.

Here’s why each and every one of them are false.

1) You need Gigabit Service at home. FALSE.

The fairy tale the big Telcom’s are spinning is….get Gigabit service and your Internet will finally be fast enough to handle all your needs and never buffer again.

Here’s the reality…Gigabit service does not increase your Internet speed. Nope. In fact, Internet speed is actually determined by your provider’s latency (more on that below).

Rather, buying a 1 Gbps package means the customer has the capacity to transfer 1 Gbps of data at a time.

Likewise, if a customer buys a 100 Mbps package, they have the capacity to transfer 100 Mbps at a time.

I like to use a train analogy to explain speed packages in their most basic terms. Imagine a train that can haul 100 tons of freight. Now imagine an even larger train that can haul 1,000 tons of freight at a time. This is the difference between 100 Mbps and 1 Gig service.

If you needed to haul 1,000 tons of freight across town, the smaller train (100 Mbps) would need to make ten trips back and forth, while the larger train (1 Gig) needs to traverse the path just once.

In theory, one can see why a 1 Gbps connection would, thus, be quicker.

But if you’re only hauling 10 tons of freight across town, either truck would suffice. Assuming they are both traveling at the same speed, your freight (or data) would get there at the exact same time.

So, by paying for 1 Gbps service, you’re paying for a bigger truck, not a faster one.

As a customer, you need to ask yourself what your data needs are…and essentially what “size” truck you truly need.

To help do that, keep in mind the following:

  •      Streaming an HD movie takes about 6 – 8 Mbps.
  •      Streaming a 4k movie takes 20 – 30 Mbps.
  •      Video chat at HD quality takes 1.5 Mbps
  •      Uploading/Downloading 200 photos takes 1.0 Mbps

What on earth do you need 1 Gbps (1,000 Mbps) for? Even with ten connected devices, you won’t reach that capacity. It’s a bit like owning a car that can go 1,000 miles per hour, but being forever stuck on a freeway with speed limits.

It might sound cool to 1 Gig, but at this point, it’s more of a frivolity than necessity for the average consumer. Oh, and it’s also a way for the big telcom’s to charge you more for something you truly don’t need.

2) Gigabit Internet Service is faster than anything else. FALSE.

Maybe you don’t care that you don’t actually “need” the full gigabit now…you’re looking to the future. Or, you just like to have the latest and greatest in technology (hey, I can relate).

Is Gigabit Internet the fastest Internet you can buy? Not necessarily. I turn again to my train analogy.

We still have our small train that can carry 100 tons of freight and our large one that can carry 1000 tons of freight.

This time, however, imagine these two trains are traveling at vastly different speeds. The larger train (1 Gig) keeps stopping at every rest station along the way, while the smaller train (100 Mbps) speeds through them all, going twenty to thirty times faster than the larger train.

In this scenario, the smaller truck will get all its freight across town quicker, even if it has to make multiple trips because it’s so much faster.

What does this have to do with your Internet? The speed these trucks are traveling relates back to the latency of your Internet…as latency determines true Internet speed. If your latency is high, it slows down your Internet significantly.

So, when your Netflix or Facetime buffers, or if you experience packet loss while gaming, it’s generally because the latency is too high, not because you didn’t buy a large enough capacity – or “speed” package as they call it

What kind of latency are you, the consumer, getting? Different providers can have wildly different latencies. Your latency correlates to how many other “stops” the Internet needs to make along the way before it gets from your location to the central point of Internet distribution from your provider. Because the cable and phone companies are all built on the same underground physical aggregation model (using the old telephone and cable wires), which includes stops every couple miles, their latency will always be fairly slow. (Imagine the area in downtown Los Angeles where the 110, 101 and 10 freeways converge and you have an idea of what these wires look like underground – and why their latency often suffers).

Unfortunately, most ISP’s won’t – and usually can’t — provide or guarantee their latency numbers. To provide an example, because of the integrated wireless/fiber infrastructure of my company’s Internet network, we’re able to provide an average latency of 5 milliseconds throughout our market, whereas AT&T, Time Warner average 40 – 50 milliseconds (which correlates to speeds five to ten times slower).

What’s the takeaway? You can’t fix slow Internet and poor latency simply by buying more capacity. Don’t get conned into buying a Gigabit, when what you really need is better latency, or true speed.

3) If you buy 1 gig service, you will get it all the time. FALSE.

If you look at the wording about speeds from most ISP’s, they key words are “Up to”….as in “Get up to 1 Gbps”. What does that mean? It means that’s the maximum you will get when your Internet is running at its best, when online traffic is low.

In reality, you are sharing a single connection with thousands of other people using the same pipes and fiber you are. When the first fifty people sign on to their “Gigabit service”, it will typically stay fast. When the next fifty sign on, it slows a little. When the next five thousand sign on (say, right around 8pm when people tend to go online), your Internet can grind down to pedestrian speeds.

Despite the fact that you are paying for Gigabit service, it’s still the old shared “party line” system, which is why, except for a small handful of ISP’s (my own included), large ISP’s will not guarantee speeds.

What’s an informed consumer to do now? Don’t buy into the myth. Avoid the hype of the Gigabit service, find a capacity that really matches your true needs and don’t fall into the trap of paying for better “speed” packages when what you really want is better latency.