RST Fiber hopes to beat Time Warner with gigabit service in Raleigh by May

akenney@newsobserver.comMarch 11, 2014 

— An upstart company claims it has quietly built a high-speed broadband network that will compete head-to-head with Time Warner Cable and other telecom giants across North Carolina within months.

RST Fiber, based in Cleveland County, has spent tens of millions of dollars to lease and lay 3,100 miles of fiber optics across North Carolina, according to chief executive Dan Limerick. Beginning in the next 60 days, the company will offer gigabit Internet service to some areas of Raleigh, Charlotte and Asheville, Limerick said.

The company hopes its new technology will outstrip its huge competitors. Instead of running cables to each home and business, RST will use wireless transmitters for the “last mile” between its network and individual customers.

“We couldn’t survive with the competition we have throughout the marketplace if we didn't come out with something new, unique and different, and revolutionary,” Limerick said.

Those wireless connections, RST claims, will top out at one gigabit per second. “Gigabit” has been the magic word here lately, especially with Google’s announcement that it might offer its own gigabit service around Raleigh.

If it works, a gigabit connection would be up to 20 times faster than the “Ultimate Internet” package that Time Warner Cable offers for a downtown Raleigh address.

Limerick said in an interview that the company might be able to reach thousands of customers in Raleigh when it launches its $99-per-month service here.

The company, founded in 2009, has offered Internet service on its home turf for years. RST has funded its huge statewide push with tens of millions of dollars from a handful of private investors, Limerick said – and it did so quietly, until now.

“When you're attempting to come out with technology that is going to potentially be a game changer, you don't come out beating your drum in today's economic environment,” he said.

The company has laid more than 1,000 miles of underground cable itself, and leased most of the rest of the “backbone” from existing networks.

The high-speed web of cables and wireless transmitters could better deliver ultra-high-definition “4K” television, voice and video calls, among other uses, according to RST. The company also expects to sell video and live television services in the second quarter of this year.

Rolling in Raleigh

RST’s data pipeline runs near Glenwood Avenue and downtown Raleigh. From there, the company will build out “like a spiderweb,” to reach more areas, Limerick said. Customers will only need a latest-model router to tap into the service.

Craig Settles, an industry analyst, said that a number of small companies are using new wireless technology to leapfrog into competition.

“It's an under-reported element of the broadband picture. It is a technology in its infancy, but it’s not unproven,” said Settles, who consults with cities on municipal broadband.

“The advantages that a company in their business offers … is that they can build the technology faster and still be reliable, and the overall cost for the infrastructure is lower.”

Services in Kansas City area and Cleveland, Ohio, already offer high-speed wireless connections, he said.

“Ultimately, what their challenge is as a small company, is they’ve got to convince the population,” he said. “They’ve got to be able to deliver.”

The company also will have to ensure its network has the proper connections to actually get those gigabits from sites and services to its customers, according to Arpit Gupta, a doctoral student studying Internet connectivity at Georgia Tech.

Basically, the connection between a computer and a service such as Netflix is only as fast as the slowest link between them. For customers here to get a gigabit per second from Netflix, RST has to make sure there’s a clean, fast connection between Netflix’s servers and Raleigh.

“It’s about how you make arrangements and how you deal with other people who have the content,” Gupta said.

Limerick said his network is tapped directly into data centers across North Carolina and beyond that provide many of the most demanded services.

RST Fiber also promises to expand its services far beyond southern Charlotte, Raleigh, Cleveland County and Asheville. RST’s founders are natives of Cleveland County and claim a vested interest in connecting rural areas.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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