The road to fiber optic Internet

The road to fiber optic Internet

These days, it is hard to turn on a computer without hearing something about fiber optic Internet access, but without any context, it can be difficult to separate rhetoric from reality.

There are multiple academic and municipal initiatives working to expand availability of fiber optic Internet access throughout the U.S., but, according to Barack Obama’s former Special Assistant for Science, Technology, and Innovation policy, Susan Crawford, only 7% of American households currently have access to fiber.

Fiber optic Internet access could enable Internet access 100 times faster than standard broadband offerings. Improved access could enable the growth of previously unimaginable Internet services that depend on lower latency and high bandwidth, and improve the quality of existing bandwidth intensive services.

Depending on who you ask, this lack of fiber optic Internet access is either a non issue or a serious threat to America’s economic competitiveness. Obviously, both sides cannot be right.

If we are to believe incumbent Internet service providers (“ISPs”), this lack of fiber optic access is not a problem. During a recent conference, when asked about demand for fiber optic high speed Internet, the CFO of Time Warner Cable replied, “We just don’t see the need of delivering that to consumers.” Though some might choose to take that statement at face value, there are compelling reasons for skepticism. Incumbent firms have a vested interest in preserving the status quo for as long as possible. Capital expenditures for upgrading Internet infrastructure to fiber are massive, and, given that cable distribution firms are making 97% profit margins off of their current services, they have little incentive to change the status quo. However, while it would be bad enough if the incumbent firms simply sat on their hands, they have also actively funded lobbying efforts to stifle infrastructural progress. Though this configuration may be profitable for big cable, the American people are footing the bill.

When it comes to Internet access, other countries do not share in America’s arrested development. Over 50% of South Koreans have fiber optic Internet access, Australia has invested in a national fiber-optic network, Germany’s fiber optic system has broken prior data transmission records, and, according to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Costa Rica is prioritizing fiber optic Internet infrastructure over transportation infrastructure. These countries are not living in the future – America is simply living in the past and now ranks a dismal 16th in broadband price, speed, and penetration.

A more plausible argument than the one being advanced by Time Warner Cable is that America’s current state of access is inadequate and that many Americans do not have access quality sufficient to benefit from some of the latest web services. As Danielle Kehl and Benjamin Lennett of the New America Foundation argue, “even as companies create innovative… technologies… policymakers and entrepreneurs are overlooking a critical factor that stands in the way of widespread adoption of these tools: adequate and universal broadband infrastructure… People in most parts of the United States are unable to use some of the most innovative… technologies out there. As the tech leaps ahead and our infrastructure stays the same, the problem will only worsen.”

In the light of these facts, there is but one path forward, and the path is paved in fiber. The federal government should develop incentives for incumbent ISPs to upgrade their infrastructures, for new firms to fill the void, and/or for municipalities to build such services as state utilities (worked inter alia for the TVA). It does not matter how they do it so long as it gets done. Between automated vehicles, wearable technologies, and the Semantic web, there are no shortage of potentially bandwidth intensive applications on the horizon. It is time to build out an American Internet architecture for the demands of the 21st century.

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