We Do Not Have the Internet We Deserve
from the a-better-future dept
Nothing that currently exists can compete with fiber. Nothing replicates the future growth fiber networks will deliver, simply because nothing that moves data has the inherent capacity of a fiber wire. It isn’t even close by any technical measurement. However, barely 30 percent of Americans have access to fiber infrastructure, despite the fact that 100 percent of Americans have become dependent on high-speed access during the pandemic.
In a few short years, more than one billion fiber-to-the-home gigabit Internet connections will have been deployed in Asia. That fiber infrastructure will be capable of reaching symmetrical ten gigabits, 100 gigabits, and well into the terabit era of broadband access in a cost-effective basis as applications and services continue to evolve and advance. Deployment at a large scale is possible, but the U.S. still lags far behind.
Here is how bad our high-speed access market is today: every big American ISP has stopped deploying fiber services at any serious scale. This leaves a vast majority of Americans stuck with inferior cable Internet service. When you factor in the monopoly power held by the ISPs—preventing Americans from switching to better service—it becomes a perfect storm. That storm broke with the pandemic, where we all suddenly found ourselves needing quick and reliable Internet access.
Only small private and local public providers are connecting folks to the future, but their efforts are stymied by incumbents and not sufficiently supported. That means most people can’t switch from cable when they opt to throttle uploads or are unable to deliver the speeds they’ve advertised if we all use the Internet at the same time. You still have landlords getting away with keeping fiber competitors out of apartment complexes in exchange for a kick back from companies like Comcast.
The remaining Americans who don’t even have access to cable are dependent on obsolete copper lines for communications held by companies like the now-bankrupt Frontier Communications and AT&T. In Frontier’s case, their overreliance on its slow Internet monopoly led to their downfall as they systemically avoided the necessary investments needed to transition to fiber leaving countless rural communities in dire straits. As for AT&T, they are trying to figure out how to cut people off the copper network and just give them cell phones to make more money with a less reliable connection. And the wireless industry spent precious years hyping 5G at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress only to now come to admit that 5G everywhere does not happen without dense fiber networks everywhere.
Now the good news: this is all fixable. If we change our telecom policies and how we invest in telecom infrastructure, fiber to the home (FTTH) is already economically feasible in a super-majority of communities if the right policies and government efforts are in place. A recent study by the Fiber Broadband Association found that FTTH is commercially feasible up to the 90th percentile of population density. For the remaining 10 percent, the Americans in the most rural of territories, we are seeing successful models led by the public sector such as rural cooperatives on long-term capital investments in FTTH.
For example, a rural cooperative in Missouri today can deliver gigabit service at $100 a month at a population density of 2.4 people per square mile. The demand is there but it is being suppressed by the slow Internet monopolists through bans on local governments building fiber and incumbent industry efforts to have the FCC hinder competition. If we break down the barriers that are suppressing the parties most ready to deploy fiber, 21st century infrastructure will come.
First, if the large private ISP model has failed (and it has), we need to start exploring our alternatives. One such alternative is simply having the government build the infrastructure and make it open to all comers. This “open access fiber” approach, fiber that is available on a shared infrastructure, is starting to take off. Utah’s “Utopia” network is leading the way, connecting more and more households in the area to an expanding open-access fiber network run by local cities. Residents within Utopia’s service area enjoy 11 private options for gigabit service, compared to whatever the majority of Americans have one or two high-speed services.
This type of approach to broadband infrastructure, where the government builds the wires and shares its capacity to broadband providers, holds tremendous promise. In essence, the government builds the roads and allows commerce to follow. One study predicts a structurally separated network deployment could connect rural homes to fiber without subsidies and through long term low-interest financing.
Other shared approaches are bearing fruit. In Alabama, the state legislature passed a law clarifying that electric utilities could leverage their easements and private rights-of-way to enable telecommunications services over their fiber assets. In response, Mississippi’s C Spire arranged an exclusivity agreement with Alabama Power in exchange for deploying fiber to the home to communities throughout the state through the utilities network. The exclusivity gave C Spire the confidence that their investments in the utility’s fiber network to make it broadband-ready could be recovered from newly connected customers, while Alabama Power was assured that C Spire would try to attract as many customers as possible to provide a stable and growing revenue base to the electric utility, resulting in lower rates. Joint ventures that leverage interdependent needs for fiber can help make more markets accessible because the demand is already there.
Lastly, the only way we are going to get everyone connected to 21st century ready access is the same way we did it with the roads, electricity, and water: the government needs to lead. Internet access needs to be part of its infrastructure policy, especially light of the private sector failing to deliver to all people.
Estimates are that nearly $100 billion is needed to deliver 100 percent coverage with FTTH in America, with the majority of that cost being associated with the most rural parts of America. That sounds like a lot, but here is the important thing to know about fiber: once you lay that line, you are done building broadband infrastructure for potentially 70 years or more. To put that in context, the publicly available commercial Internet hasn’t even existed for 70 years. All of the advancements in speed and capacity (that will far exceed satellite, cable, and wireless) will come from inexpensive hardware upgrades, not high cost labor and construction work. This is why countries like China are aggressively building fiber infrastructure at a rate nine times faster than the United States.
This reality has prompted Rep. James Clyburn to draft legislation to create an American universal fiber program. It has already passed the House, and now we must force the Senate to understand the breadth of this problem and simplicity of this solution. If we can get an electric line to everyone, we can get a fiber line there too.
The bill emphasizes open-access fiber networks that would replicate the success demonstrated by Utah’s local governments. Building these types of networks would shatter the nearly 15-year decline into the giant monopolies or duopolies that most Americans experience when trying to get high-speed Internet access. Instead, you could get Internet access from your local businesses, non-profits, and even your local schools and libraries.
The bill will also free up local governments and cooperatives to pursue community broadband. The removal of state laws advocated by the major national ISPs that ban local communities from building their own broadband access network is long overdue. The local public sector has proven to be an essential part of the solution to reach universal fiber as rural cooperatives, small cities, and townships are building fiber networks in areas long ago skipped by the private sector.
The bill also fixes a small-seeming, large-impact, and long-standing problem of Internet access in the United States by updating what we mean by broadband. Today’s federal definition of broadband was established in 2015 and stands at 25 megabits per second download and 3 megabits per second upload. This 25/3 standard makes it appear as if there are more broadband options than there truly are, hiding the monopoly. In other words, it is both useless and harmful. To fix this, the bill would establish that communities lacking 25/25 broadband are “unserved” and establish a minimum standard of 100/100 megabits per second for federally funded projects. These higher metrics would avoid wasting money on legacy networks that are unable to deliver relevant speeds and focus on future proof networks that have fiber at their core.
We have to fix our Internet, and soon.
The pandemic has not resulted in as much of an explosion of Internet usage as it has a bump in usage that is within normal parameters of what was coming—that is, pandemic usage is roughly in sync with projections for Internet usage in around 2022. The future, as they say, is now.
If your Internet access is failing you now, you have just been given a sneak peek of what 2022 looks like for your home. Broadband consumption has been on the rise as long as we’ve tracked it, and as the billion gigabit fiber connections are activated globally, the applications and services that use that capacity will come to market. If the United States government, the states, and the local governments do not actively tackle this infrastructure problem soon, we will just be unable to access the latest advancements. Not only that, but our economic competitiveness will decline as China continues to rise and the 21st century technology industries will begin to find their homes where the infrastructure is available. The next Silicon Valley may not be in America if we continue on this trajectory.
We will also start to see the creation of a new type of digital divide where Americans live with either 1st class or 2nd class Internet. Fibered networks are getting cheaper to operate yet are delivering larger amounts of data while legacy networks are quickly getting more expensive to maintain. That means low income neighborhoods and rural areas stuck on the legacy 20th century network are going to pay more for less, while high-income users connected to fiber will enjoy the benefits of lower prices. Efforts to subsidize access to the Internet for low income people will become more and more difficult on decaying lines, while free Internet zones will become more normalized in wealthy communities as the costs continue to decline on fiber.
None of this is set in stone. We have the market we choose and if we start making the right choices soon, we can solve these problems. But that takes everyone collectively demanding more from our policy makers and the industry and adopting a new approach.
Ernesto Falcon is Senior Legislative Counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation with a primary focus on intellectual property, open Internet issues, broadband access, and competition policy.