My Corner of the ‘Net

Fiber, fiber, everywhere, but not a byte for us.

Posted on | July 19, 2014 | No Comments

The first time I encountered a fiber-optic data cable was when I was commuting in to Boston on the train. I was temporarily going from the ‘burbs to Cambridge, riding from Wellesley via the MBTA rail, and one day I saw a big red sign that said “Do not dig here! Fiber-optic cable.” The company stringing the data line had wisely decided to use the train-track’s right-of-way, taking advantage of the long thruway to lay their line from Boston to the suburbs and beyond.

But years later, it never crossed my mind why the fiber never left the confinement of those tracks, remaining confined to those rails much like a locomotive and never finding a new route, perhaps one that led to our homes…

At that time, fiber was still a new technology, expensive and reserved for use as a data network back-bone. Optical cable would make the high-speed long hops, and the television cable providers would use their own shielded copper network to get data the rest of the way to our computers.
Back in the late 90’s ISPs offered local and state governments access to the new fiber links, at a greatly reduced price, for the ability to expand their new highly profitable market for Internet Access to their citizenry. But there was a catch: the government itself could never offer municipal Internet access to the local townships. It made sense at the time, after all why would an ISP want to go through the expense if wiring up a city if the government is just going to turn around and give access to the taxpayers. And why would a city go through the enormous expense of managing a city-wide data network?

But things have changed a great deal since then.

Now Washington D.C., is sitting on a major fiber trunk but can’t tap into any of that super-high bandwidth. As one might guess that’s causing Washington, along with other cities, to re-examine the deal they made so many years ago.

A few cities are already moving towards municipal fiber, taking advantage of Google’s widespread national network. But as one might imagine the ISPs are not happy about their monopoly is being challenged, and the battle lines are quickly being drawn.

The frontline? Kansas City, Missouri.

Kansas City has become the most famous test case for municipally offere high-speed Internet access. The entire metropolitan area is being wired (fibered?), making each household connected to it one if the most Wired homes in the country. Jagged video on Netflix will become a thing if the past, YouTube buffering will stop once and for all. It’s the great prototype, a shining example of how to (and how not to) install fiber in a metropolitan area.

So of course, they must be stopped.

Right after Kansas City began it’s sojourn into bringing their citizens data speeds worthy of the 21st century, legislation was introduced in the Kansas State legislature that would limit any municipality in the state from doing the same as KC (interestingly enough, Kansas City is actually in Missouri, which every state politician would of course be aware of. It’s almost as if someone from outside the state government authored this bill…)

Called the “Municipal communications network and private telecommunications investment safeguards act”, it’s stated purpose is to ensure competitive offerings of Internet access. But then, there’s one little proviso that says municipalities can’t offer access to unserved areas, meaning the law will keep these areas Internet-free until Comcast or RCN get around to connecting them. Basically it’s like saying no one in a town can drink water from the city water deptartment until Poland Spring sells everyone water coolers…eventually.

And while their concern is understandable, it’s also well-earned on their part. While in recent years fiber started becoming more and more affordable, there’s been a growing demand for higher bandwidth speeds as well. But until recently, ISPs never bothered to upgrade. Why? Because when you have a monopoly on something, why try and improve it? For over a decade Comcast, Verizon, and their ilk sat on their perfect stranglehold over home high-speed Internet access. But when Google came knocking with free 5mbps download speeds, they started to worry. And now they’re playing catch-up, badly, with a bleak bottom-line ahead if they’re forced to offer free basic service to compete with Google.

Looking back on the mistakes of the ISPs, one can see a very familiar pattern that’s played-out so many times when technology outpaces the establishment. Like the record industry before them, instead of trying to compete with the new wave of technology the service providers tried to legislate or she it out of existence. But as much as they’d like it, lawyers can’t make ideas disappear. In the long run they always lose, and frequently during their drawn-out assault a more agile third-party might swoop in to exploit what they so vehemently resist.

But the groundswell movement is on it’s way. More cities are tapping into the fiber like miners panning for gold, probing beneath their very feet for a lucky strike. Imagine Post Offices as wifi hotspots, breathing new life into those stolid structures and turning them back into centers of the community. And every town knows that free online access will attract businesses and improve their local economy. Glad-handing behind the scenes with a telecom? It’s not enough anymore.

The railroad is coming to town, and the horse-and-buggy monopoly is going to have to step aside.

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