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TDS tries bringing fiber to homes in Fitchburg for faster Internet service

TDS Metrocom has launched a pilot program for one Fitchburg neighborhood, offering broadband Internet speeds of as high as 10 megabits per second—several times higher than the fastest cable and DSL packages currently available—in order to gauge customer usage and potential applications of an emerging technology.

“With what’s going on with the Internet today, we believe consumers are going to start demanding faster speeds,” said TDS marketing manager Michele Falkner. “So by delivering a pilot test of fiber to the home, we’re testing delivering those higher speeds to see how much demand is there for faster speeds out there from the consumer.”

The service is being offered to about 1,100 homes in the McKee Road area, offering download speeds of one, four and 10 mbps at $20, $30, and $45 per month, respectively. The service is also being offered with phone service over the same fiber cable for an additional $44.

According to Falkner, the neighborhood was picked on the basis of demographic data about how many homes there were in the area, the proportion of single-dwelling versus multiple-dwelling buildings, and other data relating to technology usage and consumer habits. Having selected the neighborhood, the company now has the challenge of getting as many possible customers aware of what is being offered.

“Right now we’re looking at doing some education of what we are doing, education on what the speeds can bring to them, what benefits—such as uploading pictures and with the video IPods coming out and the Christmas season—education on what you can do on the Internet and what the fiber capability is going to bring to you,” said Falkner.
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Once clients are signed up, the company will seek customer feedback about the reliability of the service, how clients are using the faster speeds, and what new applications consumers might have for the Internet when given the increased bandwidth.

UW-Madison telecommunications professor Barry Orton said the convergence of phone, data and video content is a natural progression given developments in technology. Cable and phone companies will compete to extend existing fiber infrastructure from service centers all the way to end users as the technology becomes more available to urban and suburban consumers in the next three to five years.

“The cable companies started out with video, then they moved into data with the cable modem service, now they’re moving into voice with voice over Internet protocol, so they’re covering the waterfront,” Orton said. “The phone companies…are trying to do the same thing, but going in the opposite direction; they’ve got the voice, they’ve got the data, and now they’re going to try and get the video.”

Orton sees companies competing by using their established abilities and brand identification to market themselves to consumers, citing examples like Time Warner’s Roadrunner cable Internet service. “I think it’ll take a while before the consumer totally blurs the distinction between the company that started out selling your video and then did everything else, and the company that started out doing voice and tried to do everything else.”

One question is just what consumers will use that content for, and how third-party companies could take advantage of new demands. Orton points to the obvious examples like illicit file-sharing, online video and music stores and video games, but also listed another possible angle.

“All the stuff coming downstream is tons and tons of entertainment, but I think the real potential is upstream,” Orton said, pointing to new fields like podcasting and video podcasts, as well as more effective telecommuting for professionals.

While TDS is offering integrated phone and Internet service, they are not including television. “The manufacturers of a lot of the equipment, and the general technology itself, are not at the levels that we feel it needs to be in order to provide a competitive product to our customers,” Falkner said, citing a lack of digital video recording capability in Internet television solutions, as we as the need to compress high-definition signal and thus limit the number of channels that can be carried.

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