Internet service providers are racing to provide ever-increasing bandwidth speeds to consumers and businesses alike. Providers from AT&T to Google to Cox Communications are offering gigabit ethernet in a number of metro areas in an effort to win long-term market share with both individual households and businesses of all sizes. But as is often the case, not everything is as it seems. Regulators and customers alike are wondering how telecom companies are able to provide increased bandwidth without large capital expenses and lengthy build-out processes.

Some reports indicate that these companies are able to provide faster internet speeds using existing architecture. This begs the question of why these speeds have been restricted (or completely absent) in recent years. But there is another answer as well: dark fiber.

Fiberoptic cable being laid

Laying fiber is expensive…but it’s already been done.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Dark fiber is existing cable infrastructure that is not currently connected to the internet. Dark fiber provides many opportunities for providers. For example, dark fiber can be used to provide private networks between universities, hospitals, and financial institutions eager for super-secure and consistent connectivity. But dark fiber also provides extra capacity for ISPs looking to expand their service offerings to customers.

Once upon a time, dark fiber was considered a sunk cost for many ISPs. They over-invested as the internet’s backbone was being put in place. Anticipated network needs became distorted when new protocols and procedures allowed faster transmission than originally anticipated. As a result, not all of the cable laid for the internet was needed. In some metro areas, less than 10% of existing cable is actually “lit,” or in use.

With an increase in need for capacity by both consumers and businesses, ISPs recognized an opportunity that previously didn’t exist: both homes and offices would require increased bandwidth for high-definition video and data transmission. To fill this need, ISPs can use existing fiber to provide increased speeds – at a higher price point – to end users and other network providers.

The controversy is worth exploration. If ISPs had the ability to provide higher speeds to customers all along, why weren’t they doing so? As important, if existing fiber was far from over-taxed, then supply greatly outpaced demand for the internet speeds of the last decade. With that being the case, why have prices for internet service held steady or increased over time with little to no change in service?

The pricing for bandwidth has always been interesting. Businesses have almost always paid higher prices for similar (or slower) speeds when compared to the bandwidth delivered to individual homes or apartments. An individual in a home might pay the same price for a 20mbps circuit that a business pays for 5mbps service. ISPs often justified the disparity in cost as compared to service by stating that the resources and burden required to provide service to an office building was greater than the resources and burden required to deliver service to homes. More specifically, homes were near each other, so a single circuit could deliver service to a neighborhood and then be split among the homes with greater efficiency than the delivery to offices that might often be more spread apart.

A more practical justification for the cost disparity comes from the users themselves. Businesses often tax their internet connection at full capacity for the entire day. Excepting the small portion of users that stream and download high-definition video content for hours on end, home internet users don’t burden the network for service at nearly the same rate. A home circuit with 40mbps speed might not ever user a fraction of their allocated bandwidth. Transitioning from dialup (56kbps) to DSL (3mbps) speeds resulted in approximately a 60-fold increase in speed. Even with the popularity of Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services, very few residential customers ever require 3mbps download speeds. If they do, the use is limited to a few hours. Conversely, an office of 20 people would tax a 3mbps circuit to its limits (and then some) for the entire business day.

So what does this have to do with dark fiber? Simply put: internet transport providers can now offer the fastest speeds possible to both businesses and consumers with essentially the same infrastructure that has laid dormant and unused for over a decade. By utilizing existing dark fiber, ISPs can increase bandwidth allocation to both consumers and businesses without passing on high price increases or investing substantial cash on hand.

Of course this begs a number of questions. Will increased-speed service offerings be provided at similar or lower prices than current offerings? Will customers still be given the option of slower speeds that are more than adequate for their needs? Finally, what will happen when the capacity demanded by consumers and businesses alike finally does consume all of the available fiber? What happens when there is no more dark fiber left to bring online and ISPs must invest in more capacity? What will the market for internet service look like then?

For now, everyone using the internet should be thankful that the existing infrastructure, including miles and miles of unused dark fiber, are able to be integrated quickly into ISP offerings. For the moment, everyone benefits from the fiber that was deployed years ago but never used. What does the future hold when all of the dark fiber is finally lit? Only time will tell. Click here to learn how your organization can take advantage of unused dark fiber for your own highly-secure and private internet.