BRANDON, Minn. — Amid the wires and cases in a Brandon telecom center is a box with a familiar logo: Google.
Below that is a red box from Netflix.
These two boxes are signs of how closely big tech giants are snuggling up to internet users around the country, including right here in Douglas County.
“Every movie offered by Netflix is in this building,” said Dave Wolf, CEO of Gardonville Cooperative Telephone Association. “Someday, this box is going to be in a museum in Alexandria, it’s so cool. It’s like having I-94 come through Alex. It changed everything, good and bad.”
With video increasingly gobbling up available bandwidth, big tech started “peering” — connecting with local internet providers in order to provide faster, more dependable service. If a Gardonville customer in Alexandria wants to stream a Netflix movie, it doesn’t come from the Los Gatos, Calif.-based Netflix headquarters. It comes from that little red box about 15 miles northwest of Alexandria in Brandon. It's one of more than 4,600 servers Netflix has around the world.
The latest tech giant wanting to cuddle? Apple, which the Financial Times of London reported is spending $6 billion to create new content.
About a month ago, Gardonville and its neighboring rural telecoms, including Runestone Telecom Association, connected directly to Apple through the pipeline they all share that runs to the 511 Building in the Twin Cities.
“We’ve been after this for a year and a half now,” Wolf said. “It’s pretty exciting for us.”
Wolf talks about the difference in terms of “hops.” Before now, it took rural telco customers up to 30 hops to get to Apple content. Now, it’s only one. Faster, better service is vital in tech providers’ hyper-competitive struggle for customers.
“It’s a new world we live in and things are constantly evolving,” said Steve Richards, who leads the IT department at Alexandria Technical and Community College, and often sends the school’s graduates to work at Gardonville. “What happens when they peer with them directly, that information doesn’t even need to traverse the core internet. The internet could be down and you could still function on the Gardonville network.”
Richards and Wolf say they don’t know what Apple plans to do by peering with internet service providers.
“I would suspect they’re getting ready for something,” Richards said.
Customers are increasingly changing the way they get content, whether for entertainment, education or business. Instead of having to watch a program on a television or cable TV network’s schedule, they are increasingly able to stream content over the internet, which means watching programs when and where they want.
The more programming available online, the more congested internet traffic becomes, Richards said. That’s where peering helps.
As far as the downside Wolf mentioned?
His concerns center around competition and privacy.
Only the content creators that command huge sums of money are able to peer so closely with its viewers. That means that for every Apple or Netflix able to get lightning-fast connections to its users, there are providers whose content falls into obscurity because it’s too many hops away from viewers.
When it comes to privacy, Wolf suggests that users cloak themselves while online and use caution when installing free apps.
“If Apple becomes more infused into your life, is that a good thing?” he asked. “If you’re getting something for free, you’re paying for it in nonmonetary ways. You’re paying in time or money.”