Three major broadband providers—Google Fiber, Frontier Communications and AT&T—are bringing ultra-fast internet to Durham and North Carolina.

In the past two years, each of these providers announced their intentions of bringing to Durham 1-gigabit broadband speed—about 100 times faster than the average broadband speed in the U.S. As part of the public-private partnership North Carolina Next Generation Networks, or NCNGN, Duke has played an important role in bringing faster speeds to Durham to help enable innovation in the Triangle region.

“Research universities are a hub of innovation in part because of the access they have to ultra high-speed networks,” said Tracy Futhey, Duke’s vice president for information technology and chief informational officer. “If we can extend that into residential communities, we will extend the type of entrepreneurial activities happening on campus into these regions.”

In January, Google announced that its ultra-fast gigabit internet service Google Fiber would be coming to the Raleigh-Durham area. Currently, Google is building infrastructure to support gigabit broadband speeds, primarily by laying miles of fiber optic cable across the Triangle. Once the construction is complete, Google will begin to roll out its service to “fiberhoods”, communities that express interest in the service. Google Fiber does not yet offer gigabit access to the city of Durham, and the spokesperson could not provide a definitive timeline.

Frontier Communications launched its gigabit broadband packages in Durham starting last October, said Dennis Bloss, vice president and general manager in North Carolina. Frontier was able to bring gigabit broadband to Durham more easily than other companies because of its preexisting footprint in the city, allowing Frontier to replace its copper telephone wires with fiber cables rather than building entirely new infrastructure.

Last April, AT&T became the first to announce its intent to bring its gigabit service—U-verse with AT&T GigaPower—to the area. Its service officially launched in Durham last month and will continue to grow in the coming months, said Venessa Harrison, president of AT&T North Carolina.

NCNGN and the community

AT&T’s announcement last April came after negotiations with NCNGN, Harrison said.

NCNGN consists of Duke and three other research universities—North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Wake Forest University—as well as six municipalities—Durham, Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Winston-Salem. In 2013, the consortium invited potential high-speed broadband carriers to North Carolina before NCNGN completed a “master agreement” with AT&T in April of last year to provide gigabit broadband services to the six municipalities.

Although an agreement was only reached with AT&T, Futhey suggested that Google Fiber and Frontier’s subsequent announcements were not coincidental.

“All of these are, one way or another, growing out of what we did with NCNGN and the interest we attracted to our region around our willingness and eager adoption of gigabit for our communities,” Futhey said.

As part of its agreement with NCNGN, AT&T is set to bring free internet services to select low-income neighborhoods and community centers across the municipalities, Futhey said.

In addition, AT&T has worked with the Kramden Institute—a Research Triangle company that provides underprivileged communities with computer access—to sponsor month-long computer literacy workshops and refurbish old computers for use in low-income households, said Michael Abensour, executive director of Kramden.

In partnership with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s ConnectHome initiative, Google is also working with the DHA to bring internet connectivity to low-income Durham communities, said Dallas Parks, chief executive officer of the DHA.

The future of broadband

With gigabit broadband coming to Durham, Duke and its partners in NCNGN are working to find new uses for ultra-fast internet technology.

Duke has been able to use gigabit speeds for over a decade, Futhey said, adding that she hopes bringing gigabit to Durham will improve productivity for students and faculty working off-campus.

To this end, NCNGN is sponsoring a “community enablement panel”—which met for the first time early last week—to explore areas where gigabit speeds might promote innovation, said Kevin Davis, Duke’s director of service management and operational integration.

The panel will include representatives from AT&T, all NCNGN partners and working groups within the Durham community, such as Duke faculty and small business owners. Potential areas of focus for the panel include the development of smart homes and cities, health and wellness and education and future workforce development, Futhey said.

Likely uses of gigabit broadband, she added, include online courses and video-conferencing, collaborations to design 3-D virtual models, health-care access and the use of high-speed imaging to help doctors diagnose patients.

Davis emphasized that the panel is intended to provide an open forum for discussion.

“Innovation doesn’t happen from a top-down direction,” Davis said. “Based on the idea-generation, the goal would be to drive actionable things and bring these ideas to fruition.”