Comcast ups the ante in Internet speed competition

  • Article by: STEVE ALEXANDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 2, 2008 - 8:30 PM

Fast Internet service just got faster.

Today, Comcast is raising the stakes in the intense competition for Internet customers by introducing the fastest consumer and small-business Internet service available in the Twin Cities -- and nearly everywhere else in the nation.

With download speeds of 50 million bits per second, Comcast's "Extreme High-Speed Internet" is more than six times faster than its current fastest consumer speed and about 10 times faster than Qwest's fastest consumer high-speed DSL Internet service.

The Twin Cities area is the first market to get the new service because of high computer use here, but Comcast will be rolling it out in other cities later this year. By 2010, it expects to have added the service to all of its cable TV networks in 40 states.

If there's a catch, it's that the superfast Internet service costs $150 a month, more than double the price of Comcast's fastest consumer service until now -- and it may not be quite as fast as advertised because of unpredictable data bottlenecks on the Internet. But even at somewhat reduced speeds, the Comcast service is faster than other Net access alternatives, early customers of the Comcast service say.

In offering the upgrade, Comcast is hoping to cater to rising demand for downloading video, which contains much more data than a document or a photograph. At 50 million bits per second, a 4-gigabyte Hollywood movie can be downloaded from the Internet in less than 10 minutes, Comcast said. The service is also aimed at small companies that move a lot of data from one location to another.

Comcast's Internet speed-up points out an advantage that the nation's cable TV companies have when adding new services, said Tara Howard, an analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston. Having upgraded their networks in the past decade to offer digital TV, telephone service and Internet access, they now have excess network capacity.

The companies can use that capacity to upgrade Internet speeds at only minimal cost. As a result, other cable TV companies across the country are expected to follow Comcast's example, she said.

Of the nation's phone companies, only Verizon (the wired phone company, not the cell phone firm) has offered 50 million bit-per-second speed, and then only in a small area in New York, Howard said. Qwest, which has lagged behind Verizon and the other big local phone company, AT&T, is not expected to be able to field a 50-million-bit Internet service anytime soon, she said.

"On the consumer side, I see people who are heavy game players or video uploaders using the service," Howard said. "On the business side, I see it being used by hospitals for transferring medical images or by digital photographers. But the average consumer is not going to need that much speed."

Some early customers agree.

"I wouldn't buy the service at home because it's too expensive," said Steve Borsch, who runs six-employee Marketing Directions, a home furnishings newsletter publisher in Eden Prairie. "But using it at work, it's much better than shipping 600-million-byte files of photographs through the mail on DVD or CD discs."

The new service also has an upload speed that is more than five times greater than Comcast previously offered consumers but, at 5 million bits per second, it's only a tenth the download speed. (Most consumer Internet services are designed to make downloads faster than uploads because most individuals download more often.)

"I'm most excited about the 5 million bit upload speed," said Brett Larson, the information technology manager at 60-employee Northern Technologies International Corp., a maker of biodegradable plastics in Circle Pines. "We send a lot of big data files to customers, including high-resolution photos we send around the world." As a business customer, he pays $200 a month for the superfast Internet service, but considers it worthwhile "because nothing else comes close to it."

But Internet speed claims must always be taken with a grain of salt, because the quoted transfer rates are legally a "best effort" rather than a guarantee of performance. Borsch and Larson reported that download speeds were 15 to 30 percent slower than advertised, and uploads were about 20 percent slower. But both said they were happy with the results because, even with less-than-advertised performance, the service was much faster than what they had before.

For customers who decide not to spend more money, Comcast will offer more modest increases in speed for the same price. Consumer-level customers will get faster upload speeds, said David Diers, vice president of advanced services in Comcast's St. Paul operations. The company's existing business customers will get higher speeds for both uploads and downloads, he said.

Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553

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