The United States needs a comprehensive, holistic approach to ensure the construction of fiber optic infrastructure to provide robust Internet enabled telecommunications services in the 21st century on a par with universal telephone service in the 20th. The nation won’t achieve that standard in a timely manner by relying on incremental, one off builds.
While it’s laudable that some local governments have built or are planning fiber
infrastructure in response to private sector market failure on the supply side
(as spotlighted this week in Cedar Falls, Iowa by President Obama), these
builds without significant and sustainable funding support cannot cumulatively
provide the telecommunications infrastructure the nation needs and should have
been planning at least two decades ago. As Steven S. Ross notes in his article
in the November-December, 2014 issue of Broadband
Good for Rural Residents, Good for the Country, these localities that
have or are putting in place modern telecommunications infrastructure
participate in the same economy as do others lacking it.
York State’s initiative announced this week it would dedicate $500 million
of a $4.5 billion windfall arising from the settlement last year of prosecutions
of alleged misconduct by banks and insurance companies to subsidize fiber construction. That’s
one time, opportunistic funding that will help construct fiber in areas where
it doesn’t exist. But it addresses only a small fraction of the state’s significant need
as shown by the accompanying map. The money will quickly be exhausted with no
plan fiber up the rest of the Empire State, reinforcing existing disparities.
Similar underfunded initiatives exist in other states. Incrementalism allows
policymakers to claim small, short term victories but leaves incomplete
networks in its wake over the longer term.
Other examples of incrementalism are the continuing circa 2002 debate over “broadband
speeds” -- which grows increasingly irrelevant in an age of fiber optic-based telecommunications
technology -- and “net neutrality.” Net neutrality – the principle that all
Internet traffic be given equal priority – is meaningless without robust network
service in the first place. A more important principle than net neutrality is
Metcalfe’s Law. It holds that the value of a communications network increases
as the number of connections to the network grows. With so many Americans not
offered fiber Internet service, the U.S. has a long way to go to recognize the
full value of Metcalfe’s Law. It won’t get there with piecemeal incrementalism.