‘Fibre optic broadband is as essential a utility as electricity’
These were the words of former Obama technical advisor, Susan Crawford, as she told a packed house at the Science Gallery this week that the introduction of fibre optic broadband is as important to us today as electrification was more than a hundred years ago.
On top of lecturing in Communications at Harvard, advising New York mayor Michael Bloomberg on technology, and writing columns for Bloomberg View and Wired, Crawford also runs OneWebDay – a kind of global earth day while also promoting the introduction of fibre connectivity around the world. Throughout her speech in Dublin, Crawford described fibre optic technology and high connectivity as a utility that should be provided to every citizen in the same way as electricity and the telephone were introduced to most homes in the previous decades.
Fibre and high connectivity revolution
One strand of fibre has thousands of times more connectivity than the DSL or cable and Crawford said with higher connectivity, we are about to undergo the same kind of shift, different but equally enormous, as the invention of the internet.
“It’s impossible to predict what could happen in a world filled with homes connected to fibre, who, after all, could have predicted what the internet would bring?” she asked. “But it’s harder to invent and innovate when you can’t turn the lights on.”
Fibre optic cables can provide gigabits (1,000 megabits) of bandwidth for both uploading and downloading content, and countries like Ireland and the US are falling way behind others who are implementing the technology. For around €25 per month in Hong Kong you can get symmetrical fibre connection (500 MB download and upload). Similar packages are available in Tokyo (200 MB), Paris (100 MB), and London (60 MB) and in Australia the government has promised to bring fibre into 93% of homes by the end of its term in office. By comparison, in Dublin, Smart Telecom offers 24 MB download and 1 MB upload for €28 with a data cap and in NY for about $35 you can get 28 MB down 2 MB up.
Crawford described how we are facing the same issues with broadband as we did with introducing electricity in the last century. “In the 1920s, 90% of American farmers didn’t have electricity when most of kids in New York City had electrical toys?”
She said it wasn’t until Roosevelt, who spent a lot of time in Georgia and made rural electrification a central policy, that the new service spread throughout the country. Crawford believes governments need to treat fibre installation in a similar manner.
The failure of deregulation
“The US government deregulated the industry in the belief that competition between cable and telephone companies would best serve the customer,” she said. “But this clearly hasn’t worked.”
In reality, the cable companies were able to upgrade their bandwidth using existing connectivity whereas the phone companies would have to invest a lot of money upgrade copper wires carrying DSL to fibre. The phone companies realised they couldn’t compete and left the market to the cable firms to a point where 85% of Americans now have to sign up to cable. Competing companies didn’t encroach on each other’s territories and created monopolies. Crawford called cable a “laughably profitable business” which is great for shareholders but not for the average citizen.
A similar model is appearing here with UPC having doubled its market share and now have the most expensive high speed offering in Europe. Crawford pointed out that eircom’s largest shareholder is now private equity firm Blackstone and it will not invest in fibre unprompted. “These companies are only interested in short term returns and pleasing shareholders,” she said.
Crawford, however, remains optimistic for the future of fibre. “It happened with electricity and the telephone; it’s going to happen here.” She said that electricity was also seen as a luxury when it was first introduced. “Electricity was thought to be needed only for street lights, some people had in their front room but were afraid to use it elsewhere lest it infect the whole house.” It wasn’t until people saw what was possible with electricity at extravagant World Fairs that the demand for this new technology soared. She said places like Dublin’s Science Gallery need to be the World Fairs of the 21st century and show people what is possible with high connectivity.
The Chattanooga project
She highlighted how some small towns in America are already showing what is possible. “Chattanooga, Tennessee, placed fibre cable alongside their electricity network and as a result has America’s fastest fibre network and the first smart grid (where each home can monitor its power usage). It has become a vibrant creative place, college graduates are returning home to live and work there, new start-ups are arriving in droves.” Crawford also highlighted Cleveland, Ohio where a Gigabit network has been built. “Cleveland sees itself as being the centre of medical innovation with applications that create very realistic surgical simulations to help doctors practise with real patient’s data.”
Crawford does not advocate the tax payer footing the bill for the cost of laying fibre. She says the key is the provision of low interest, long-term financing for private companies that are willing to invest in fibre. “The government must make it financially attractive for private companies to build the network. Once these networks are in place they can be very profitable for the companies”.
DigitalTimes.ie asked her if it was possible for the government to force private companies to build networks to serve all areas of the country. “Companies are perfectly willing to provide connectivity for unprofitable areas in exchange for services profitable areas provided that they are subsidised,” she answered. “Australia is doing it, it is as simple as both regulating and legislating.”