Maybe there is room for the little guy in an ecosystem that's typically been dominated by big internet companies. Ting, a startup internet service provider that recently revealed plans to launch in Charlottesville, Virginia, just announced that it's expanding its gigabit fiber to a second city: Westminster, Maryland, where the local city council has been frustrated with Comcast and other existing options.
"We want to blow this thing up, and we want disruptive services at disruptive pricing," Robert Wack, Westminster's city council president, told me. "We've got Comcast and its usual suite of services, Verizon DSL, with its patchy service areas, and dish and satellite services. Nobody is happy with any of it, and none of it has the capacity we need to take this city into the future."
So, two and a half years ago, the town of 20,000 people—located about an hour north of Baltimore and an hour-and-a-half north of Washington, DC—began looking into building its own fiber network. The first phase of that project is finally done, and, within a month or two, it'll be ready to begin servicing customers. The project is expected to cost roughly $15 million.
But, instead of operating the network itself, the town is going to lease that network to Ting, which is owned by a company that made its name selling domain names in the late 1990s.
they've recently been running around town trying to lock people into long term contracts
It's a major development for residents of a small town, but it also bodes well for people in the rest of the country who are unsatisfied with one of the big cable companies. Increasingly, small ISPs and startups are taking shots at Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner, and other so-called incumbents as they see a chance to compete on speed and customer service. And when you're running an ISP without the luxury of having a monopoly, those things matter.
"Consumers are tired of having no choices," Dane Jasper, CEO of Sonic, a well-liked small ISP that's been operating for 20 years in northern California recently told me. " There's no reason our company can't be replicated a thousand times. Why aren't there a thousand companies like us in America?"
The emergence of Ting and companies like it might suggest that Jasper's vision is coming closer to becoming a reality.
A month ago, Ting announced it'd be moving from the mobile phone business, where it resells spectrum from the Sprint network, into fixed gigabit broadband—partly because the company has realized that many, many people can't stand their current internet provider.
Charlottesville will be the first city to get Ting, followed by Westminster.
"At the simplest level, we'll be offering a lot more product for the same price, and a much better customer experience," Elliot Noss, who runs Ting's parent company, told me at the time. "We want to become like a mini Google Fiber," he said, referring to the search giant's much-publicized attempt to break up the increasingly monopolistic ISP business.
Downloading a movie in three seconds instead of three minutes is great, but we're doing this to increase jobs
Under the agreement, the company will lease the infrastructure from Westminster and will sell internet service directly to people living there. So far, pricing hasn't come out, but it's likely to be lower or comparable to what Comcast charges for slower internet speeds. This leasing model is pretty similar to what the company does with cell phone service, and it's a fairly common practice in the industry.
Ting says it's picking and choosing where it expands based almost entirely on local lawmakers' enthusiasm for high speed broadband, and Wack certainly seems into the idea of upgrading from cable and DSL.
"The only reason we're doing this is economic development. We're thinking about the long term economic future of this community, improving lives of kids who are in kindergarten now," Wack said. "Downloading a movie in three seconds instead of three minutes is great, but we're doing this to increase jobs, to entice businesses to come here, to increase property values, to allow people who work in Baltimore and Washington DC now to telecommute from their homes. That's the value."
Wack said that unless the city built the network itself or partnered with a small company like Ting, it was never going to get improved internet speeds.
"Bottom line, if we weren't doing this ourselves, it would never happen. We're a small enough community that the incumbents would never come here," he said. "We wanted Google Fiber to come but it didn't work out."
In other cities, Comcast and other ISPs have lobbied very hard and tried to dissuade local lawmakers and voters from investing in their own networks. In some states, a community starting its own ISP is outright illegal. Maryland has no such law, and Comcast apparently didn't try to interfere in Westminster, perhaps because the community is so small. Wack noted that, since it's become apparent that the fiber network was actually going to go online, Comcast has finally taken notice.
"The only sign of activity on their part is that they've recently been running around town trying to lock people into long term contracts," he said. "We haven't been terribly secretive about this, but we're hoping they've got their hands full with other stuff on a national level. We don't need the headache of them trying to interfere now. We're holding our breath."