Omaha will join a short list of cities with ultra-fast Internet service when CenturyLink launches a pilot project that will bring speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second to 48,000 homes and businesses.
That's as fast as the Google Fiber service that came to the Kansas City metro area after that market was chosen in a nationwide competition that Omahans were disappointed to lose.
CenturyLink said it will evaluate the pilot's profitability before deciding whether to expand it elsewhere in the Omaha metro area or in other cities. But individual businesses outside of the west Omaha zone will be able to sign up for the service over the next two years, as CenturyLink expands its fiber-optic network throughout the metro area.
The CenturyLink project is expected to draw national attention and be a selling point as the metro area competes to attract talented workers, high-tech startups and established businesses looking to grow and relocate, said David Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce.
“A significant portion of our high-growth companies are high-tech or Web-enabled technology companies,” he said. “This is a distinguishing quality-of-life factor for locating here.”
Brown already is planning out how to share the information with companies he is working to lure here and with site selection consultants who work on behalf of relocating businesses.
Danny Pate, CenturyLink's vice president and general manager for Nebraska, said high-speed Internet, like low-cost power and relative protection from natural disaster, is another selling point for Omaha among high-tech companies.
“We're trying to create entrepreneurs,” he said. “We are really helping to raise the visibility of the technical capabilities of Omaha, and how much it can drive new business here.”
CenturyLink would not share the cost of its investment, saying only it was “multiple millions of dollars” to run the trial project. The project itself will add more than 50 skilled jobs to the metro area, with CenturyLink hiring people to handle installations and repairs.
Omaha will be one of just a few in the United States to boast “1 gig,” available on a fiber-optic network connected directly to the home or business premises.
Google Fiber launched last summer in neighborhoods in the Kansas City metro area, and Google has announced that it will expand to Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah.
CenturyLink's service will go live Monday and be available at first for 9,800 potential customers in west Omaha in a territory formerly served by CenturyLink predecessor Qwest's Choice TV product. The new service, called Lightspeed Broadband, will be available to all of the 48,000 households and businesses in that territory by October.
People who live and work in that area already may have noticed CenturyLink crews taking the existing fiber-optic network right to their property. CenturyLink has sent mailings to those property owners saying the “fastest speed in Omaha” is on its way. (A gigabit is more than six times as fast as Cox's fastest speeds in Omaha. Cox offers a max of 150 megabits per second for downloading, 20 megabits per second for uploading.)
The CenturyLink residential service will sell for $79.95 a month when bundled with other CenturyLink services, or for $149.95 a month a la carte. The company is not disclosing business prices.
The first and only business customer so far is the Highline, a downtown high-rise being redeveloped into upscale apartments by NuStyle Development.
NuStyle co-owner Todd Heistand was excited when he first heard from CenturyLink that the Highline would have Internet speeds of 50 megabits per second. When he found out just a few days ago he'd be a pioneer with a whole gigabit — 1,000 megabits — his reaction was “off the charts.”
It's so fast, he said, “I just can't hardly picture even what this gigabit service is about.”
He expects that it will save “a ton of time” for his employees working out of the Highline, because they won't have to wait for large architectural and marketing images to upload. And it will be a selling point for the several dozen apartments he still needs to lease.
Other Omaha businesses said they would be interested in the service.
Phenomblue, an advertising agency with an office in Aksarben Village, could benefit, technology director Ryan Phelan said.
He said staff members now have to spend too much time waiting for video and image files to upload and can't take full advantage of the video conferencing system they use to talk to colleagues in their Los Angeles office.
“The speeds we've been able to get up until now in Omaha have been kind of a bottleneck for us,” he said.
Relatively slow speeds also limit the type of interactive creative work the agency can produce, said Brandon Bone, associate director for software design and development. As more consumers have access to faster Internet speeds, “There are a lot of possibilities for really cool experiences we could create.”
The 1-gigabit speed will be a boon to businesses that want to establish a data center on site, said Brown and Ken Moreano, president of the Scott Data Center.
While Scott Data Center may not benefit — it's connected directly to the Internet “backbone” — Moreano said the service could boost Omaha's stature among startups and venture capitalists and could help the city attract future data centers.
“The impact that Google has had on Kansas City has been high visibility,” Moreano said.
Another benefit to companies is that “enterprise-level” Internet speeds would allow more people to work from home, he said. “That could be a dramatic impact to their production and performance capabilities.”
Other businesses and institutions that could benefit are those in the health care, education, manufacturing and banking sectors.
And while it might not have an economic impact, households with a growing numbers of computers and mobile devices will find it faster and easier to do things like stream movies, download music and use video calling services to talk to grandma.
“We're all seeing increasing demand in these types of services,” Pate said. With the fiber system, “You're no longer worried about bandwidth with your customers.”
Nebraska Public Service Commissioner Anne Boyle of Omaha pointed out that some Nebraska households still have slow broadband speeds or even dial-up connections. She hopes to see higher speeds everywhere so more people can take advantage of the way technology connects people to opportunity.
The Federal Communications Commission in January announced its “Gigabit City Challenge,” with the goal of having at least one city in each state with gigabit-speed Internet by 2015. It looks like Nebraska will meet that challenge.
“I think what CenturyLink is doing is a big plus for the city of Omaha,” Boyle said. “If their pilot project is successful, it'll bring even better resources to everybody, with the world we live in today and tomorrow.”
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