Why Both 100-Mbps and Gigabit "Top Speeds" Make Sense

Decisions about internet access speeds always are a mix of supply and demand drivers, as suppliers invest in capabilities they believe potential customers will buy, at specific price points, at levels that are sustainable long term.

That is why the second-largest U.S. internet service provider--Charter Communications--sells 100 Mbps connections as its top offer, while Comcast and other cable companies are rolling out gigabit connections.

Charter could upgrade to a gigabit, but clearly believes the market will pay for 100 Mbps. If so, then investing in more-expensive gigabit connections does not make business sense.

Comcast and others (AT&T, many independent ISPs and other cable companies) think upgrades to a gigabit are required for competitive reasons (headline speeds and marketing), even if they believe most consumers will not choose to buy such services.

The key observation is that nobody actually has found that most consumers are willing to buy gigabit connections when they also have a choice of 100-Mbps up to 300-Mbps choices that cost less.

In other words, investing in gigabit platforms almost always--so far--involves a determination that most consumers will not buy that product, and instead will opt for a lower-speed--though still fast--connection.

So why supply gigabit services? The answer is because “our competitors do so.”

Comcast primarily operates in major urban markets, where competition is more robust, and where it faces Google Fiber offering gigabit services. That is true for AT&T and CenturyLink as well. Even if only 10 percent of customers actually choose to pay for gigabit services, that still sets market expectations, and no leader wants to face the marketing claim that “it is not the leader” in speeds.

Customer demographics also can play a role. Charter historically has operated in smaller markets, where competition is less robust, though the new Time Warner Cable assets primarily are in larger urban areas.

Comcast, on the other hand, mostly operates big-city networks, where it faces competition from other ISPs presently, or soon, to offer gigabit speeds.

So gigabit headline speeds matter, in big markets, even if suppliers realize most consumers will not buy them, yet. Google Fiber, and some other gigabit providers, also have found demand for gigabit connections less robust than they had hoped. EPB reports that about eight percent of its internet access customers buy the gigabit service, for example. Google Fiber might have wound up getting 10 percent or less take rates for its gigabit service, priced at $70 a month.

Under such conditions, a range of decisions, ranging from “top speeds of 100 Mbps” to “top speeds of a gigabit” or even 2 Gbps, make business sense. Demand matters when supply is considered.
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