Is fiber the new electricity? At least one author thinks so
"Fiber plus advanced wireless capability is as central to the next phase of human existence as electricity was a hundred years ago."
This sentence arrives on page 9 of Susan Crawford's "Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution — And Why America Might Miss It," which is due out on Tuesday and details how societies with ubiquitous fiber optic networks are beginning to outpace the U.S. and other nations without such connectivity. Crawford's statement is a bold one; did the Harvard Law School professor have any reservations about making such a comparison?
"None," the author told The Eagle during a telephone interview Wednesday .
Over the book's next 200-plus pages, Crawford establishes a compelling case for the necessity of affordable fiber and running it to homes throughout the U.S., an argument strengthened by her trips to Otis and other U.S. communities building their own fiber optic networks. As more "last-mile" communities in the Berkshires and elsewhere weigh their internet options, Crawford's book can serve as a primer on the benefits of a technology often shrouded in jargon.
"The whole book is aimed at demystifying this area," she said.
For those who hear fiber and still think food, Crawford helpfully describes what fiber optic networks entail in the book's opening pages. For example, she traveled to South Korea repeatedly during her research, marveling at the instantaneous digital world accessible at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
"The country is wired with 375,000 miles of fiber optic cables, formed of hair-thin filaments of unbelievably pure synthetic glass, which channel light across the many miles between rural Pyeongchang and homes and businesses in the rest of the country," Crawford writes, later recounting a visit to Corning, N.Y., to see how glass lines are made.
South Korea isn't alone in emphasizing fiber; countries such as Japan and Singapore also "have virtually 100 percent fiber adoption at low prices, and often scores of competitors," Crawford notes.
But why does fiber matter?
"Those hair-thin fiber strands, capable of carrying billions of phone calls simultaneously, plus advanced wireless communications that depend on that fiber extending into the 'last-mile,' will make possible virtually unlimited, cheap communications capacity wherever you are — which in turn will give rise to new businesses, new transport capabilities, new ways of managing our use of energy, new forms of education and health care, new ways of earning a living, and new forms of human connectedness," Crawford writes.
"We don't yet know all the appliances and uses," she said by phone, noting that people couldn't imagine refrigeration before its existence.
In the U.S., 11 million of 126 million households receive the all-important "last-mile" fiber connection, and it's expensive. Instead of fiber, many U.S. citizens are using digital subscriber line (DSL) or hybrid-fiber coaxial cable services.
The difference between these two wires and fiber is speed. The FCC defines high-speed access as 25 megabits per second (mbps) and three mbps per upload. Hybrid-fiber coaxial cables' speeds can exceed those numbers greatly, but they can't reach the speed of fiber, which can deliver speeds over one gigabit per second. The speed gap between DSL copper wires and fiber is more vast.
"You wouldn't even try to download a 4K movie using a copper connection, but using fiber you could download 10 movies in a second," Crawford writes.
For Crawford, who authored "Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age" and co-led the Federal Communications Commission during the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations, the reason why the U.S. doesn't have cheap fiber isn't elusive.
"Because of decades of political maneuvering by the enormous private companies that sell internet access to American consumers, a lack of leadership at the federal level, and the invisibility of this entire policy area, we have failed to make the upgrade to cheap last-mile fiber connectivity," she writes, comparing the private control to electricity's early years.
"The whole country is being bossed around by Comcast and Spectrum," she added by phone.
But some cities and towns are taking matters into their own hands, constructing their own fiber optic networks. Among other communities, Crawford visited Chattanooga, Tenn., Winthrop, Minn. and Otis. Following her trips to the Berkshire town, she came away impressed with the collaboration between Otis and utility Westfield Gas & Electric during the planning stages of building and operating the network.
"It was a very healthy relationship," she said.
She chose Otis as one of her cases largely because of the town's democratic approach to voting on fiber.
"It was important to me to capture the idea of the town meeting," she said.
Crawford's book closes by examining the implications and potential barriers to widespread fiber availability. She hopes that a political leader who understands its importance will emerge.
"You need a crisis, and you need effective leadership," Crawford said of filling the fiber void, adding that the former already exists.
Crawford splits her time between Cambridge and New York City. She has been closely following the decisions made by Western Massachusetts "last-mile" communities, and she believes that they can set examples for other rural American communities to follow.
"Massachusetts led the nation in health care," she said, "and Massachusetts should lead the nation in communications."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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