Comcast Corp. will start offering faster Internet services in Minnesota's Twin Cities region on Thursday, with plans to extend that type of next-generation system to its entire service area by 2010.
The $150-a-month offering for residential customers costs about triple Comcast's priciest option to date and likely will appeal only to heavy users of online music, movies and other large Internet files.
But the nation's largest cable operator expects new Internet services down the road to demand ever-greater speeds.
"A decade ago we couldn't even conceive of ... YouTube," Google Inc.'s video-sharing service, said Greg Butz, Comcast's vice president for marketing and product development. "We hope that this platform we're building will drive and create that next-level invention and drag with it a broad array of customers."
With the faster service, a customer could download a 4 gigabyte high-definition movie in about 10 minutes, compared with about an hour at previous speeds.
Comcast's announcement comes just a week after the company reversed its stance over hampering online file-sharing by its subscribers and, under pressure from federal regulators, promised to treat all types of Internet traffic equally.
Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas said the technologies being deployed in Minneapolis and St. Paul would help the company meet that promise, which followed an Associated Press investigation in October confirming user reports of interference with file-sharing traffic known as BitTorrent.
The Philadelphia-based company agreed last Thursday to collaborate with BitTorrent Inc. and develop a better system for managing congestion. Comcast has said it must clamp down on heavy users of Internet bandwidth so others won't be slowed down.
Until the new traffic-management system is fully tested and deployed, expected by year's end, Douglas said the faster Comcast service would still be subject to hampering.
"Just because we increase all the roads in Philadelphia to eight-lane highways doesn't mean we can take out all the traffic lights," Douglas said. "It's going to take a little bit of time to get this new system in place."
The new service, which Comcast has yet to name, will allow the cable operator to better compete with phone company Verizon Communications Inc., whose next-generation FiOS already offers service at up to 50 megabits per second.
Comcast will also be offering up to 50 Mbps for downloading, or receiving, files. Uploading, or sending, files will be at up to 5 Mbps. The monthly $150 price is available only to residential customers; small businesses will have to pay $200 for a package that includes additional technical support and security software.
The existing high-end tier costs $53. Maximum upload speeds for those customers will automatically increase to 2 Mbps, more than doubling the current limits. Downloads will remain at up to 8 Mbps. Maximum upload speeds for the basic, $43 tier will nearly triple to 1 Mbps, while downloads will remain capped at 6 Mbps.
Cablevision Systems Corp. already offers a 50 Mbps maximum download service — with 50 Mbps maximum uploads — for about $200 a month but does not actively market it. Cablevision's fastest advertised service costs up to $65 for maximum downloads of 30 Mbps downloads and uploads of 5 Mbps.
To offer the new tier, Comcast is taking advantage of a technology called DOCSIS 3.0, which allows service providers to use four TV channels rather than just one to send data over the cables. The industry group CableLabs is nearing certification of DOCSIS 3.0 modems.
Butz said Comcast would deploy the new systems to about 20 percent of its service area by year's end, finishing by mid-2010. He refused to say which markets would get the upgrades next. The company said that although the initial offerings would cap downloads at 50 Mbps, the technology could support service three times as fast in the future.