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Fiber Connectivity in the United States

Susan Crawford

In the United States, we cannot even imagine cheap, unlimited communications capacity in our homes. Because of decades of political maneuvering by the enormous private companies that sell internet access to American consumers, a lack of leadership at the federal level, and the invisibility of this entire policy area, we have failed to make the upgrade to cheap last-mile fiber connectivity.

We suffer from a whole series of digital divides as a country. On the global stage, there is a deep and widening divide between the United States on the one hand and Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and China on the other. Those places, where fiber now reaches or soon will reach all residents, are where new industries and new ways of making a living are likely to emerge first.

We also suffer from huge digital divides between richer and poorer Americans that will make inequality worse and weaken the fabric of democracy. These infrastructure divides are driving wedges between rural and urban Americans and between white and nonwhite Americans. All the policies important to us as a country—becoming the most advanced health care nation in the world, the most energy efficient, the most innovative, the most resilient—depend on having last-mile fiber and advanced wireless services available cheaply to everyone. We must do better.

Fiber optic, as a category, is both old and new. The cables running under the oceans and among the major cities of the world began to be upgraded to fiber thirty years ago. And once a fiber optic cable is in the ground, it lasts for forty or fifty years; it is essentially future proof, because its information-carrying capacity can be almost infinitely upgraded without digging up the cable, merely by swapping out the electronics that encode and power the pulses of light that travel within its walls. Most people in non-fiber countries (including the United States) can’t even buy what in fibered countries counts as a standard, modern internet connection. About 11 million American households, out of 126 million total, are connected to last-mile fiber, and that service is usually available only at very high prices from a single unregulated provider. Meanwhile, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore have virtually 100 percent fiber adoption at low prices, and often scores of competitors.

This is a big problem.

Here’s why: Those hair-thin fiber strands, capable of carrying billions of phone calls simultaneously, plus advanced wireless communications that depend on that fiber extending into the last mile, will make possible virtually unlimited, cheap communications capacity wherever you are—which in turn will give rise to new businesses, new transport capabilities, new ways of managing our use of energy, new forms of education and health care, new ways of earning a living, and new forms of human connectedness. For these things to happen, both fiber and advanced wireless technologies need to be widely and competitively available. Without these basic pieces of open infrastructure in place, your country will be missing out on the future being lived and built elsewhere.

Much of the world gets this. China is installing twenty thousand last-mile fiber optic connections every single day. In June 2017, the South China Morning Post reported “China set to build the planet’s largest 5G mobile network for US $180b.” Listen to that: the “planet’s largest.”

Fiber plus advanced wireless capability is as central to the next phase of human existence as electricity was a hundred years ago.

From Fiber by Susan Crawford. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

Susan Crawford is the John A. Reilly Clinical Professor at Harvard Law School. She is also the author of Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.

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