Five ISPs offer 10 gigabit per second internet connections. So far, it looks like only one person in the US has bought one.
Image: Jason Koebler
What does the guy with the fastest internet in the United States use his jealousy-inducing bandwidth for? Analyzing X-rays… and gaining an advantage in Call of Duty, of course.
Startup and community-run internet service providers have grabbed headlines over the last two years as they've begun rolling out the first 10 gigabit-per-second residential internet connections in the United States. As far as I can tell, though, only one person in the entire country has actually bought one of these connections, which are still incredibly expensive because the technology is so cutting edge.
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I met with James Busch—a radiologist and the proud owner of what I am almost certain is the first 10 Gbps residential connection in the United States—at a coffee shop in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I told him about my trials and tribulations with Time Warner Cable in New York City, and he tried to drum up some empathy from a distant past in which he used to send medical imaging studies on a T1 line in Boston. I reminded him that most of us were still on dialup at the time. And then I raised the point that his family alone is living in our blazing fast future.
"When you think about it like that, it's pretty cool," Busch told me. "You get spoiled with it."
For reference, the Federal Communications Commission officially classifies "broadband" as 25 Mbps. His connection is 400 times faster than that.
An argument that's increasingly being raised by policymakers and telecom companies is that gigabit fiber networks—which generally offer 1 Gbps connections—have had relatively slow uptake, because no one needs a connection that fast. Busch found a way to make good use of his 1 Gbps connection, and now he's found a use for 10 Gbps, too.
"An X-ray averages around 200 megabytes, then you have PET scans and mammograms—3D mammograms are 10 gig files, so they're enormous," Busch said. "We go through terabytes a year in storage. We've calculated out that we save about 7 seconds an exam, which might seem like, 'Who cares,' but when you read 20,000 or 30,000 exams every year, it turns out to be something like 10 days of productivity you're saving just from a bandwidth upgrade."
While 10 gig connections sound excessive at the moment, Busch says his family quickly started using all of its 1 gig bandwidth.
"We ballooned into that gig within eight or nine months. With my kids watching Netflix instead of TV, with me working, we did utilize that bandwidth," he said. "There were situations where my daughter would be FaceTiming and the others would be streaming on the 4K TVs and they'd start screaming at each other about hogging the bandwidth. We don't see that at 10 gigs."
"You get used to everything happening instantly"
Most importantly, though, his connection has made him a better gamer, because of a phenomenon known as "host advantage" that exists on games that use peer-to-peer servers.
"If you play first person shooters and you're the host, you get a few milliseconds advantage on other people you're playing against," Busch said. "If you have a gig connection, you're always host, so you end up ruling. I used to play with my buddies online, and one was from Chattanooga so it was always me or him who was the host. We'd always rule Call of Duty with 20 or 30 kills."
"You get used to everything happening instantly," he added. "Windows updates, app downloads—instant. The only thing that ties it up is processing power, not the connection."
"Offering 10 gigs has the symbolic value of 'plenty.' It shows our technology can do what no one else can do."
So why does Busch have a 10 Gbps and the rest of us don't? For one, 10 Gbps offerings are rare and scattered in mostly rural communities that have decided to build their own internet networks. Most companies that have the technology offer gigabit connections (a still cutting-edge technology only available in a handful of cities) at affordable prices and 10 Gbps connections at comparatively exorbitant ones. In Chattanooga, 1 gig connections are $69.99 per month; 10 gig connections are $299.
Thus far, 10 Gbps connections are available in Chattanooga; parts of southern Vermont; Salisbury, North Carolina; and parts of Detroit and Minneapolis. But besides Busch, I couldn't find any other people in the United States who have signed up for one.
EPB, the Chattanooga government-owned power utility that runs the network, confirmed that Busch is the city's only 10 Gbps residential customer. Rocket Fiber, which recently began offering 10 Gbps in Detroit, told me that it has "no customers set in stone," but that it's in talks with prospective ones. Representatives for US Internet in Minneapolis and Fibrant in Salisbury did not respond to my requests for comment. Michel Guite, president of the Vermont Telephone Company, told me his network has no 10 Gbps customers, either.
"We offer it as a symbolic gesture," Guite told me. "Offering 10 gigs has the symbolic value of 'plenty.' It shows our technology can do what no one else can do. We think the project is fun."
Guite says that several research institutions have 10 Gbps connections, and Fibrant's first 10 Gbps connection was a local school. If you know of anyone else who has 10 Gbps as a residential customer, email me with a screenshot of your speed test or your story!
Speaking of speed tests: Busch says only a couple providers can actually handle his connection.
"When I do a speed test, you really feel the engines are turning when you hit the button. I'm at 9.8, 9.5 [gigs per second] reliably," Busch told me. He was supposed to send me a screenshot of the speed test, but technical difficulties have made it inaccessible for weeks. "I've tried on sites that don't support the 10 gig connection and it freaks out. The speedometer only says 1 gig, but it'll wrap around a couple times."
Colman Keane, director of fiber technology at EPB, told me that the organization had to work with Ookla (the most popular online speed test) to "tweak" its system to accommodate the connections.
Another problem affecting 10 Gbps uptake—at least in Chattanooga—is that it isn't being pushed too hard by EPB because few customers are willing to invest in the enterprise-level internet ports and cables needed to actually get those speeds. Keane said EPB has been more conservative in promoting 10 gig connections because of growing pains it had with 1 gig customers.
"During our 1 gig launch we ran into numerous Windows-based computers with 1 gig ports that had drivers that would only support between 500 and 600 mbps, which makes for a difficult conversation with a customer," Keane said, meaning customers weren't getting what they paid for because their computers couldn't handle it. "Prior to [10 gig] launch, we spent a good bit of time determining minimum specs for both PCs and routers. So with this launch, we can generally start the conversation with what kind of equipment they will need to use the 10 gig service."
Busch, an early adopter of just about everything, says he's only got two machines hard-wired to be able to take advantage of the 10 Gbps connection; his wireless router is only able to put out a 3 Gbps signal. Somehow, I don't feel bad for him.