Northern Virginia near Washington DC is one of the nation's wealthiest "exurban" communities but has long complained of wretched Internet service. So it makes sense that Verizon would move aggressively in this area. And it makes sense that Cox would fight to protect its wealthy customers. And that is the simple and largely true explanation. But saying that doesn't explain why this response is banner news on the Internet sites devoted to broadband. Why is this competitive response surprising and unique? After all, Verizon is rolling out its fiber in places across the country. The answer seems to be, at least in part, because in Northern Virginia Cox can respond—and in most places the cablecos can't come near matching Verizon's fiber. And for that near-parity it appears to owe gratitude to a meddling government. As broadband reports notes:
A skirmish between Cox and Fairfax county started in 1999, when the cable company purchased the network of Media General. Cox was slow to update the newly acquired networks - which - if you take a trip back to our forums in 2001, offered a connection quality easily bested by a 300baud modem hooked to a Wildcat! BBS.So in forcing Cox to meet its contractual obligations locally, Fairfax County probably made it possible for Cox to nearly effectively answer a real competitive challenge. Of course, if there had been real competition in the area before Verizon arrived bearing fiber, it would probably have not have been necessary for the county to insist on adequate infrastructure.
Fairfax County took action against the provider for delays and hit them with a $2 million fine. They then began fining them $2,000 each day they failed to meet upgrade obligations. By 2003, the half-a-billion dollar upgrade of the old Media General network began to take shape.
Cox raised the cap on its premier tier of service to a nominal 15 megs in response to the challenge from Verizion for these prime customers. It's a great upgrade at first glance—and we got a similar but lesser sort of upgrade (it maxes at 6 megs for the highest-priced tier locally, I believe) not long after it became plain that LUS wasn't going to back down on its plan—but Cox's new Northern Virgina offering remains 10 dollars more than what Verizon is charging for the same speed cap. And not all speed caps are the same. When any company, be it Cox, Verizon, BellSouth, or presumably LUS, sells you a certain download/upload speed (its 15/2 in Northern Virginia) they are really selling you not a speed but a cap. They are telling you that you can use up to but not beyond a particular number, the cap.
Time out for a brief explanation: cable companies cannot sell you a guaranteed speed because you are on a shared line with other users. In one common example, they split 24 megabytes between users in a neighborhood of many potential users. As long as their service is unpopular they can deliver the 5 megs you've paid for. But if 5 users all try to download at the same time they're trying to use 25 megs--1 meg more than is available--and if 10 users try it, nobody can get more than 2.5 megs--half of what you thought you paid for. It's in the cable company's best interest to oversubscribe the lines and it is industry standard procedure to do so. Hence, no guarantees.
The implication is pretty clear: raising the cap is useful only if the bandwidth is available. If Cox Northern Virgina hasn't really increased capacity, then it is little more than a marketing ploy in terms of your day-to-day experience. The cap—the advertised speed—is much less interesting than the raw bandwidth available at your door. All things being equal, if Verizon has much more headroom in its system (and it does), then you are more likely to get the advertised speed. And it's 10 dollars a month cheaper.
Right now all these details and technicalities really don't matter much in Lafayette. But this is just the sort of reasoning we'll have to go through if LUS gets the chance to build our network. And expect such reasoning to tend in favor of the system with real headroom: LUS'.