For the first time, an American president has proposed a plan that wouldn’t just make a dent in the digital divide, it will end it. By deploying federal resources at the level and scale this country has not seen since electrification nearly 100 years ago, the U.S. will again connect every resident to a necessary service. Like with water and electricity, robust internet access, as the pandemic has proven, is an essential service. And so the effort and resources expended are well-worth it.
The president’s plan, which matches well with current Congressional efforts of Representative James Clyburn and Senator Klobuchar, is welcomed news and a boost to efforts by Congress to get the job done. This plan draws a necessary line that government should only be investing its dollars in “future-proof” (i.e. fiber) broadband infrastructure, which is something we have failed to do for years with subsidies for persistently low metrics for what qualifies as broadband. Historically the low expectations pushed by the telecom industry have resulted in a lot of wasted tax dollars. Every state (barring North Dakota) has wasted billions in propping up outdated networks. Americans are left with infrastructure unprepared for 21st century, a terrible ratio of price to internet speed, and one of the largest private broadband provider bankruptcies in history.
Policymakers are learning from these mistakes as well as from the demand shown by the COVID-19 crisis and this is the year we chart a new course. Now is the time for people to push their elected representatives in Congress to pass the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act.
What Is “Future-Proof" and Why Does Fiber Meet the Definition?
Fiber is the superior medium for 21st-century broadband, and policymakers need to understand that reality in making decisions about broadband policy. No other data transmission medium has the inherent capacity and future potential as fiber, which is why all 21st-century networks, from 5G to Low Earth Orbit Satellites, are dependent on fiber. However, some of the broadband access industry keeps trying to sell state and federal legislatures on the need to subsidize slower, outdated infrastructure, which diverts money from going towards fiber and puts it into their pockets.
What allows for that type of grifting on a massive scale is the absence of the government mandating future proofing in its infrastructure investments. The absence of a future-proof requirement in law means the government subsidizes whatever meets the lowest speed required today without a thought about tomorrow. This is arguably one of the biggest reasons why so much of our broadband subsidies have gone to waste over the decades to any qualifying service with no thought towards the underlying infrastructure. The President’s endorsement of future-proofing broadband infrastructure is a significant and necessary course correction and it needs to be codified into the infrastructure package Congress is contemplating.
If every dollar the government spends on building broadband infrastructure needed to go to an infrastructure that met the needs of today and far into the future, there are a lot of older, slower, more expensive broadband options that are no longer eligible for government money or qualify as sufficient. At the same time, that same fiber infrastructure can be leveraged to enable dozens of services not just in broadband access, but other data-intensive services, which makes the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act’s preference for open access important and likely should be expanded on, given how fiber lifts all boats. One possible solution is to require government bidders to design networks around enabling wireless and wireline services instead of just one broadband service. Notably, the legislation currently lacks a future proof requirement in government investments, but given the President’s endorsement, it is our hope that it will be included in any final package that passes Congress to avoid wastefully enriching capacity-limited (and future-limited) broadband services. Building the roads to enable commerce should be how the government views broadband infrastructure.
We Need Fast Upload Speeds and Fiber, No Matter What Cable Lobbyists Try to Claim
The cable industry unsurprisingly hates the President’s proposal to get fiber to everyone because they are the high-speed monopolists for a vast majority of us and nothing forces them to upgrade other than fiber. Fiber has orders of magnitude greater capacity than cable systems and will be able to do deliver cheaper access to the high-speed era than cable systems as demand grows. In the 2020 debate on California’s broadband program, the state was deciding whether or not to continue to subsidize DSL copper broadband, the cable lobby regularly argued that no one needs a fast upload that fiber provides because, look, no one who uses cable broadband uses a lot of upload (especially the throttled users).
There are a lot of flaws with the premise that asymmetric use of the internet is user preference, rather than the result of the current standards and cable packages. But the most obvious one is the fact that you need a market of symmetric gigabit and higher users for the technology sector to develop widely used applications and services.
Just like with every other innovation we have seen on the internet, if the capacity is delivered, someone comes up with ways to use it. And that multi-gigabit market is coming online, but it will start in China, where an estimated 57% of all multi-gigabit users will reside by 2023 under current projections. China has in fact been laying fiber optics nine times faster than the United States since 2013 and that is a problem for American competitiveness. If we are not building fiber networks everywhere soon to catch up in the next five years, the next Silicon Valley built around the gigabit era of broadband access will be in China and not here. It will also mean that next-generation applications and services will just be unusable by Americans stuck on upload throttled cable systems. The absence of a major fiber infrastructure investment by the government effectively means many of us will be stuck in the past while paying monopoly rents to cable.
Fiber Is Not “Too Expensive,” Nor Should Investment Go to Starlink (SpaceEx) No Matter What Its Lobbyists Say
The current FCC is still reeling from the fact that the outgoing FCC at the end of its term granted nearly $1 billion to Starlink to cover a lot of questionable things. Despite the company historically saying it did not need a dollar of subsidy. And the actual fact that it really does not.
But if government money is on the table, it appears clear that Starlink will deploy its lobbyists to argue for its share, even when it needs none of it. That should be a clear concern to any congressional office that will be lobbied on the broadband infrastructure package. Under the current draft of the Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act, it seems very unlikely that Starlink’s current deployment will qualify for any money, and certainly not if future proofing was included as a condition of receiving federal dollars.
This is due to the fact that satellites are inherently capacity-constrained as a means to deliver broadband access. Each satellite deployed must maintain line of sight, can carry only so much traffic, require more and more satellites to share the burden for more capacity, and ultimately need to beam down to a fiber-connected base station. It is this capacity constraint that is why Starlink will never be competitive in cities. But Starlink does benefit from a focus on fiber in that the more places its base stations can connect between fiber and satellites, the more robust the network itself will become.
But in the end, there is no way for those satellites to keep up with the expected increases in capacity that fiber infrastructure will yield nor are they as long-lasting an investment as each satellite needs to be replaced at a fairly frequent basis as new ones are launched while fiber will remain useful once laid for decades. While they will argue that they are a cheaper solution for rural Americans, the fact is the number of Americans that cannot feasibly get a fiber line is extremely small. Basically, if you can get an electrical line to a house, then you can get them a fiber line.
For policymakers, Starlink’s service is best understood as the equivalent of a universal basic income of broadband access where it reaches far and wide and establishes a robust floor. That on its own has a lot of value and is a reason why its effort to expand to boats, trucks, and airplanes is a good thing. But this is not the tool of long-term economic development for rural communities. It should be understood as a lifeline when all other options are exhausted rather than the frontal solution by the government for ending the digital divide. Lastly, given the fact that the satellite constellation is meant to serve customers globally and not just in the United States, it makes no sense for the United States to subsidize a global infrastructure to enrich one private company. The investments need to be in domestic infrastructure.
The Future Is Not 5G, No Matter What Wireless Carrier Lobbyists Say
For years, the wireless industry hyped 5G broadband, resulting in a lot of congressional hearings, countless hours by the FCC focusing its regulatory power on it, a massive merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, and very little to actually show for it today. In fact, early market analysis has found that 5G broadband is making zero profits, mostly because people are not willing to pay that much more on their wireless bill for the new network. The reality is 5G’s future is likely to be in non-broadband markets that have yet to emerge. But most importantly, national 5G coverage does not happen if you don’t have dense fiber networks everywhere. Any infrastructure plan that comes out of the government should avoid making 5G as part of its core focus given that it is the derivative benefit of fiber. You can have fiber without 5G, but you can’t have 5G without the fiber.
So even when companies like AT&T argue for 5G to be the infrastructure plan, the wireless industry has slowly started to come around to the fact that it's actually the fiber in the end that matters. Last year, the wireless industry acknowledged that 5G and fiber are linked and even AT&T is emphasizing now that the future is fiber. The risks are great if we put wireless on par with wires in infrastructure policy as we are seeing now with the Rural Development Opportunity Fund giving money to potentially speculative gigabit wireless bids instead of proven fiber to the home. This has prompted a lot of Members of Congress to ask the FCC to double-check the applicants before money goes out the door. Rather than repeat the RDOF mistakes, it's best to understand that infrastructure means the foundation of what delivers these services and not the services themselves.
We Can Get Fiber to Everyone If We Embrace the Public Model of Broadband Access
The industry across the board will refuse to acknowledge that the private model of broadband has failed many communities before and during the pandemic, whereas the public model of broadband has soared in areas where it exists. In both President Biden’s plan and the Clyburn/Klobuchar legislation is an emphasis on embracing local government and local community broadband networks. The Affordable, Accessible Internet for All Act outright bans states from preventing local governments from building broadband service. Those state laws that will be repealed by the bill were primarily driven by the cable lobby afraid of cheap public fiber access.
By today we know their opposition to community fiber is premised on keeping broadband prices exceedingly high. We know now that if you eliminate the profit motive in delivering fiber, there is almost no place in this country that can’t be connected to fiber. When we have cooperatives delivering gigabit fiber at $100 a month to an average of 2.5 people per mile, one is hard-pressed in finding what areas are left out of reach. But equally important is making access affordable to low-income people, and given that we’ve seen municipal fiber offer ten years of free 100/100 mbps to 28,000 students of low-income families at a subsidy cost of $3.50 a month, it seems clear that public fiber is an essential piece to solving both the universal access challenge as well as making sure all people can afford to connect to the internet. Whatever infrastructure bill passes Congress, it must fully embrace the public model of access for fiber for all to be a reality.