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Fiber internet popping up in Michigan, offering speeds 100 times faster than cable

The fastest Internet connections available to Michiganders are coming from small Michigan companies you've probably never heard of.

In 2011, Ann Arbor was vying with cities around the nation to get the first installation of Google Fiber, a connection that was faster and better than anything around. The city lost, but what once took an Internet giant to accomplish is now being done by small companies in pockets across the state.

What it is

Fiber internet runs on a fiber-optic line. That's a different material than most existing cable and direct service line connections, which run over copper. Fiber is capable of running at much higher speeds than connections that come over copper fiber.

Speeds offered to residential customers in Michigan via fiber connections vary, but reach at least 1 gigabit.

What gigabit fiber internet technically does is transmit information at the speed of 1 gigabit per second. That's about 100 times faster than a standard 10 megabit connection available from companies like Comcast and AT&T.

In the future, fiber-optic lines could transmit even faster speeds. Researchers in the Netherlands transmitted 255 terabits per second, according to ExtremeTech. That's comparable to all of the traffic flowing over the entire internet at a peak time.

Where it is in Michigan

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation has partnered with Connect Michigan and Connected Nation Exchange to map the state's fiber network and where fiber is available. The result is a map where people can see where fiber service is already available in the state and fiber routes that may indicate where fiber will be next.

"Ultra-high-speed infrastructure is critical for securing Michigan's place in the digital economy," said MEDC Chief Executive Officer Steve Arwood. "The carriers on this map clearly recognize this mission and are ready to serve our communities, residents, businesses, and institutions with the fastest Internet connections available."

Eric Frederick, executive director of Connect Michigan, worked to make the map. He said participation by fiber-providing companies was optional and at this point about half of the fiber companies in the state are represented on the map. He said this is a big deal for companies looking to locate in the state.

"I think that with this map this is really the first time that a public entity like MEDC has worked to make information like this publicly available. There isn't another state in the union that offers this type of fiber optic route information in a public setting," Frederick said.

Jason Schreiber is founder and chief executive officer of LightSpeed, a Lansing company that formed in 2014 and has rolled fiber internet past 8,000 homes of potential customers in Lansing and East Lansing. He said companies have been bringing fiber to high-use businesses for a while now, but "we're bringing it to everybody."

Early subscribers are paying $49 per month for the service, and the demand is huge.

"We have more orders coming in every day than we can deliver them. The demand has been fantastic," Schreiber said.

LightSpeed is one of a handful of Michigan companies providing fiber to homes. But the increasing access to fiber in the state is also important to businesses.

In the future Frederick can see fast connections dictating where people choose to live. Already he has realtors who call him to see if their properties are connected to broadband.

"Folks are finding that they can't sell their home if they don't have a broadband connection, let alone a fiber connection," Frederick said.

One pattern he's seen in fiber offerings is that they're not just popping up in the urban centers you'd expect. Some of the first homes in Michigan with access to fiber are in rural areas with legacy telephone companies.

That's what's happened in Climax, a town about 25 minutes East of Kalamazoo.

CTS Telecom, Inc. started planning for fiber to the home a few years ago with a federal grant for broadband in rural areas, said Vice President of Operations Scott Gerdeman. The company had been providing fiber to businesses in downtown Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, but with the grant was able to run fiber into 500 homes.

The company offers speeds of 50 megabits, and could potentially offer more in the future.

CTS Telecom has been around for so long that it started off with bare wire running on trees in the area, and ran out of the owner's house. Now, Gerdeman said, "we have one of the finest internet services available in the state."

Lightspeed plans to expand to Southfield and is evaluating more markets to branch into. Meanwhile, in Detroit gigabit fiber internet is getting a boost from Dan Gilbert, founder and chairman of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans.

What people use it for

Frederick said when you talk about fiber to the home, you're getting into a bit of a chicken or egg conversation.

"What comes first? Do you create one gigabit connections for everybody and then let them figure out what to do with it or do we wait for the application side?" Frederick said.

Right now he personally has a DSL connection, and isn't sure what he would do with the speeds that fiber can offer.

Gerdeman said in Climax some of the earliest adopters have been gamers looking for a fast connection for games that require internet connectivity.

If Schreiber's subscribers are any indication, young people are looking for this technology.

"The top demographic of the market that's interested in our services is young professionals, just out of college to young families," Schreiber said. "We dominate that demographic. Everybody wants our service."

One advantage of fiber over traditional copper lines is that it boasts fast upload speeds, not just download speeds. That could come into play as more people store their information on a virtual cloud instead of on their individual computers, Schreiber said.

Frederick said there's a demand for fiber in university towns as well.

"You have a very well educated audience, you've got professors who take big data research projects home with them who might need that speed," he said.

To Schreiber, this technology is exciting because it's new and its full potential hasn't been tapped yet. In the future he can see transmitting 10 gigabit or 100 gigabit speeds over the same infrastructure LightSpeed is building now.

"We're at the very beginning of what fiber can produce," Schreiber said.

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