Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Why U.S. FTTP infrastructure deployment won't follow the 20th century timeline for electrification

Here's how a colleague thinks Susan Crawford's forecast of a long winter of telecom discontent might play out in the coming years as the nation wanders in the darkness unlit by fiber to the premise. He believes "very, very few cities and no counties" have the money or the political will to pursue FTTP telecommunications infrastructure. The construction of FTTP infrastructure reaching all American homes, schools and businesses, he predicts, will play out over decades as electrification did in the early part of the 20th century. There will be 20 or 30 years of isolated private or municipal builds, followed by another 20 or 30 years of federally funded infill to cover the remaining unfibered areas. 

I disagree with the comparison to the deployment of electrical distribution infrastructure in the previous century. Information and communications technology is moving at a far faster pace in the 21st century. We're seeing robust, pent up demand for Internet service that is far outstripping the ability of Internet service providers to deliver it at reasonable, affordable rates due to widespread market failure. Americans simply will not tolerate such a prolonged wait for universal FTTP service.

Politics also argues for a much more compressed timeline than my esteemed (and anonymous for now) colleague envisions. The United States is close to or already at a political tipping point in terms of protecting the de facto monopolies of the legacy incumbent telephone and cable companies -- among the most hated and least respected institutions in the nation. That inevitable tipping point is when their lobbying currency is greatly devalued relative to consumer and business demand for Internet services that grows stronger by the day. 

Finally, the pace of technological progress is far faster than in the early 20th century. A disruptive technological development could come along that would drastically reduce the time and cost of deploying FTTP. For example, super strong and lightweight carbon fiber or nanotube sheaths that could be deployed on poles by remotely operated drones once the poles are made ready. That would greatly reduce labor costs, which is the major FTTP cost challenge. As well as maintenance costs since the sheaths would be wind resistant and squirrel proof.

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