In the next few years, the way we connect to the internet, and one another, will dramatically change. Through a combination of cable, fiber-optic and 5G mobile networks, most people and businesses in Dallas-Fort Worth will have access to broadband with download speeds nearing one gigabit per second, a dramatic jump in bandwidth that changes the way we create, store, and share data, as well as how we run our businesses.

Gigabit connectivity will be available to almost all people and facilities in DFW within five years, says Amit Basu, a technology professor at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business. “However, adoption levels will depend on carrier pricing.” Indeed, the race to provide more bandwidth is on, and the apps requiring faster connections are here now.

Fiber Fueled

In January 2004, Keller made national headlines when Verizon spent $15 million to install 1.2 million feet of fiber-optic cable. Verizon aimed to surpass 3 million homes in other North Texas suburbs with its fiber-fed FiOS service, providing TV, internet, and phone service via a single, fiber-optic line to the consumer.

Keller, however, never became a gigabit city. Verizon says more than 70 percent of its consumer FiOS Internet customers subscribe to data speeds of 50 megabits per second or higher, but declined to say how many FiOS customers it had in North Texas. Last year, Verizon sold its wireline customer base in three states, including Texas, to Frontier Communications for $10.5 billion.

Google is installing gigabit-speed fiber connections in some locations, but no North Texas cities are on its build list of more than 20 metros, including Austin, Atlanta, and Kansas City, Mo.

Dallas-based AT&T is investing in its fiber-optic networks, too. The company’s 1 gigabit-per-second broadband service, U-verse with AT&T GigaPower, is ultimately going to be rolled out in 56 metro areas, reaching 14 million commercial and residential locations. Rehan Asad, AT&T’s associate vice president for broadband strategy, says the gigapower network supassed more than 1 million locations last year and is expected to “more than double” that availability by the end of this year. The company won’t specify how much of that activity is earmarked for its own backyard. 

Asad says fiber-optic internet connectivity isn’t necessarily about meeting today’s bandwidth needs. “We’re building the network for the next 30 to 50 years,” he says. “Download speeds have been the focus for the last 20 years. Upstream bandwidth is going to be potentially as important in the years ahead.”

The Federal Communications Commission is also pushing for more fiber-optic internet access. The agency’s broadband progress report shows that, as of January, 34 million Americans lacked access to fixed broadband at speeds of at least 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. “We have a moral and statutory obligation to do better,” wrote FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. 

The FCC’s 25 Mbps broadband definition aims to encourage phone companies to invest more in fiber optics and wireless infrastructure. “They’re basically saying DSL doesn’t count anymore,” says Brett Sappington, director of research at Dallas-based Parks Associates.

More than 12.3 million U.S. homes are connected to fiber, according to researcher Michael Render, RVA LLC president. Render says probably less than 1 percent of DFW currently has gigabit connectivity, but that’s going to quickly grow. His latest survey of service providers found that more than half of the broadband service providers in North America expect to offer gigabit-speed connectivity within five years.

Cable companies are bringing big bandwidth, too. They now have more broadband internet subscribers in the U.S. (59 million) than they do pay TV subscribers (53 million). Cable network advances have allowed top download speeds to quadruple in three years and, in some regions, cable providers can offers speeds up to 2 Gbps. 

Cable firms in North Texas are speeding up and getting more competitive. Testing site Speedtest.net, which is run by network measurement firm Ookla, says Time Warner Cable is the fastest internet service provider in Dallas, and Charter Communications is the fastest in Fort Worth. Both  companies averaged download speeds of more than 65 Mbps.

The 5G Phenomenon

More will get closer to gigabit speeds when fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks arrive. The technical standards for 5G networks haven’t been set yet, but the telecom industry’s expectations are remarkable. The bandwidth delivered to individual devices will vary, of course, but 5G networks are expected to handle 100 times the number of devices, at minimum, and 1,000 times the volume of data. The most aggressive technical goal is for 5G networks to achieve a latency—the lag between when data is requested from the network and delivered—of less than five milliseconds. 

That low-latency, high-powered connection will unleash the Internet of Things market. “New experiences like virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities and more are about to test networks like never before,” said John Donovan, AT&T Technology and Operations group president, in a prepared statement. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said several times at the Mobile World Congress trade show in February that virtual reality is “the most social” platform. He expects that with 360 videos and virtual reality, consumers will soon share entire scenes, not just one photo or static video.

Here’s where the big three carriers are in the 5G network race:

  • AT&T is working with Ericsson and Intel. It is starting 5G network trials this summer and will have wireless connectivity at fixed locations in Austin by the end of the year. 
  • Verizon said in September 2015 it had begun developing its 5G wireless network, with help from Cisco, Nokia, Samsung, and others. It aims to have its network operating commercially in 2020, the company said at that time.
  • T-Mobile, the nation’s third-biggest wireless carrier (and owner of Dallas-based MetroPCS), said it would start 5G tests in the second half of this year. Nokia said it was helping the carrier develop its 5G capabilities. In a release, T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray said the company is “on the path to real 5G use cases once 5G consumer smartphones are available in the 2020+ timeframe.”

Almost as soon as 4G reaches mass adoption, new gigabit-speed networks will be around the corner. Now, half the mobile connections in the U.S. are on 4G networks and, by the end of the decade, 85 percent of North America will be connected to 4G.

It will be largely up to businesses to use the bandwidth to create more immersive experiences. In commercial real estate, restaurants, and the travel industry, new technologies could help customers more clearly imagine a new office space, brasserie, or vacation hotspot. Streaming 360-degree video and virtual reality, in ultra high-definition, will push that experience, and the networks providing it, to the limit. “This is all about figuring out applications for the next-generation of the internet,” says Michael Skelton, director of the Richardson Economic Development Partnership. REDP and UT Dallas are part of US Ignite, a public-private partnership funded by the National Science Foundation. They’ve started developing gigabit-era applications and expect to connect to a research test network later this year.

Fort Worth City Hall recently switched on its 1-Gbps internet connection. The city’s CTO, Kevin Gunn, says that kind of connectivity “will help people feel like a more connected participant in their government.”

At home, you’ll kick back, not worrying that Ultra HD, or 4K TV, requires five times more bandwidth than HDTV. It won’t be long before we’re recording multiple 4K TV shows, while live-streaming our work environment from a home office to attend a meeting overseas—at 4K resolution, of course. When we finally live in gigabit cities, I think we’ll feel right at home.