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Geoff Daily

App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

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June 18, 2008 8:39 AM

No One Wants Fiber to Every Home

So anyone who reads App-Rising.com on a regular basis knows that I'm a fan of full fiber networks. I just can't get around the fact that no other access technology has the capacity of fiber optics, and ultimately I believe we will have sufficient demand for high bandwidth applications to not only justify but require the biggest possible pipes into every home.

Unfortunately, when I suggest that the goal is realizing a future where fiber touches every home as quickly as possible, too often I get met with disbelief about its feasibility, doubt over its necessity, and, most troubling of all, lack of support from the very people responsible for helping achieve that goal.

The feasibility camp has a point: deploying fiber is expensive, some argue too expensive for rural areas. But that's simply not true. I don't know the specific stats, but I'm guessing that if you take Verizon's FiOS out of the picture, that rural areas are getting as much fiber as anywhere else, if not more. Much of this has to do with desperation; these areas are dying off and have to do something. Regardless of why it's happening, the undeniable reality is that it is happening. And with regards to the overall cost, I don't see how we can shirk our responsibilities to the future of this country by not investing a couple hundred billion into something that can help us realize trillions of dollars in savings and growth. It's not that we can't do it, it's that we won't.

The necessity camp is one that frustrates me greatly. Despite these being learned people, they've bought into the hype of a wireless world, that eventually we won't even need wires. Why invest in fiber if 100Mbps wireless is just around the corner? To that I say: wireless is not yet proven at 100Mbps let alone anything faster whereas fiber's already capable of handling 1Gbps+, and you can't have superfast wireless without a lot more fiber as it's the fiber that will make those speeds possible. And to anyone who says copper's sufficient, I'll simply say that when the day comes that 3D TV and HD videocalls become feasible for consumers, I want a pipe big enough to support those high-bandwidth applications, and from everything I've seen that means fiber.

But the main inspiration for this post is the camp that's responsible for our broadband infrastructure but that for various reasons have not yet embraced the goal of 100% fiber deployment.

One faction of this camp has obvious reasons not to support it: they want to continue making money of their initial investment in a copper infrastructure. Cable companies and many telcos don't want to see fiber laid to every home because it's not likely that they're the ones who'll be laying it, so if fiber gets laid that means not only do they have to face a new competitor but that competitor will be able to offer a vastly superior network. Making matters worse is now everyone's talking about their fiber networks, which muddles the message of why we need the ultimate goal to be full fiber networks.

But there's too other significant groups that you'd think would be supportive of a full fiber nationwide deployment, but aren't necessarily so.

The first are equipment manufacturers. Without naming names, I've had conversations with at least one major manufacturer of fiber optic cable who admitted that they'd prefer a slow and steady deployment of fiber to the home rather than a large upswell in demand. For them, it's simple economics. They worry that if they increase their manufacturing capacity to support a nationwide deployment, what happens once everyone gets their fiber? They may be left with a bunch more capacity to build than there is demand to buy. So while you'd think a manufacturer of fiber optic cable would be one of the biggest supporters of the speedy deployment of fiber everywhere, in actuality while they do ultimately want fiber everywhere they'd prefer if it takes us a while to get there.

Then there's Verizon. I've long applauded their efforts to deploy fiber to the home through FiOS, but I've also been critical of their decision to cherry pick the most well-off neighborhoods instead of covering entire cities. But there's another twist to this that's not often talked about: they don't want too many people demanding FiOS.

My understanding of their situation is that they're deploying FiOS just about as fast as they can. I've even heard at various points that their demand is so great it's gobbling up all the available hardware and manpower for deploying fiber in some parts of the country. Because they can't deploy any faster than they already are, they don't necessarily want everyone in their footprint to start demanding it. In fact, if all the mayors in all the cities in which they operate were to wake up and realize how important having fiber is to the future health and viability of their communities, that'd be one of the worst things that could happen to Verizon as then they'd have to deal with managing expectations in a major way since they're years from deploying in many communities.

While they undoubtedly want everyone in a FiOS community to know about and want the product, elsewhere they'd rather people not go crazy demanding to have their networks upgraded so they can take their time getting to them. Plus, Verizon still seems to have no plans to support 100% buildouts across their footprint.

So here we are. Any network operator not deploying fiber doesn't think we need it. The biggest network operator deploying it doesn't want too many people to demand it and has no plans for 100% deployment. And the equipment manufacturers would rather the deployment of fiber to the home takes its time rather than happening as quickly as possible. Plus many learned people don't see the need for fiber with high-speed wireless on the way.

What does all this mean? For those of us who believe that fiber is our future, it means we've got some work to do. We're all out there trying to convince people that fiber is where it's at, but in some ways we're all alone. And that worries me. How can we create a groundswell of demand for fiber without everyone working together? And when we create that demand, who's going to help satiate it?

It's a question for which I don't have an immediate answer. All I can say for now is that I, for one, do believe in the need for fiber. Others may doubt its feasibility and necessity, but I want us to realize all that a fiber-enabled future can make possible. And in order to achieve that, we're going to have to find a way to flip the script and open the floodgates of demand for fiber. Otherwise, the deployment of fiber will continue to lag behind not only other countries but behind what America is capable of once we set our mind to it.

Who wants fiber? I do!

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Comments (2)

Don't forget, we already ran two wires to nearly every home in America. Phone and electricity. Neither was cheap, but both were absolutely worth it.

Posted by christopher mitchell on June 18, 2008 12:17 PM

I applaud your forthright endorsement of fiber, Geoff. As you remark a dense fiber network is the only practical way to provide the big bandwidth that is necessary to the dreams of broadband advocates. Neither wifi, nor wimax, nor cellular can be usefully deployed at high speeds without it. And we are already at the point on the wireline side where deploying anything other than fiber in greenfields and during major upgrades smacks of irresponsible management.

So deploying fiber is a huge issue... and the issue of the moment.

But I suspect that broadband advocates will soon have to begin thinking beyond just getting the pipe to how the owners let that pipe be used. At some point we need to recognize the implications of the story you tell above: Left to their own devices most of those our society has relied on to meet our clear and obvious broadband needs see more value to their organizations by going slow, and deploying to only the most lucrative neighborhoods--ever. The motivation is honestly commercial. But the desire to control the pipe to create the greatest value for each dollar of investment doesn't end at deployment. It extends to how that pipe is used. The pressure to degrade the simple provision of (cheap) bits and privilege "services" will be irresistible for any profit-seeking corporation that isn't strongly regulated. We see all the signs that this is true in today's net neutrality debate where "monetizing" services and degrading the "commodified" cheap and open bitstream is all that is going on once you strip away the rhetoric.

The motivation of the players matters, especially if the hope is a wide open, inexpensive, innovative broadband with many competitive players. It won't be what many of us have fought for if the big broadband pipe a fraction of us get is a tightly integrated vertical monopoly where the "services" that the last mile owner offers are all that work well and the cheaper bitstream is "managed" to produce inconsistent speeds and high latency for any non-approved services. This is a serious problem once you grasp that, given the all but infinite capacity of fiber, there is really no practical reason to believe that more than one fiber network will be economic to deploy. (The owner of the first can always use the near-zero marginal cost of additional bandwidth on an established network to reduce prices lower than a new entrant, with new plant to pay off, can go.)

Getting to the full vision requires differently motivated players. The way to get that different motivation that I favor is public ownership and local control...like the roads. But I think the minimum is a regulatory regime like that that governed the buildout of the old phone system--motivating incumbent to consider the public interest and making universal service the only practical route for the network owners.

Worth worrying about.

Posted by John on June 18, 2008 11:39 PM

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