Commentary by Steve Effros
It’s almost been an article of faith recently that “fiber to the home” was going to be the dominant, revolutionary telecommunications infrastructure of the future. After all, Blair Levin said so in the FCC’s Broadband Report, and he’s been promoting “1 Gig” fiber installation ever since. So has Susan Crawford, who thinks that local governments should jump into the business of building all new, magic, fiber systems because the federal government is not likely to do it (her preferred course) given that it would likely cost about $300 billion to “fiber” the country the way she thinks it should be.
And these two “thinkers” have some pretty strong back-up. There’s “Google Fiber,” after all, which while it advertises itself as a “1 Gig” platform doesn’t really deliver that speed, but hey… who’s going to really know or care? There are a few other speedy experiments out there as well, and they are all anchored in the notion that the infrastructure already in place just won’t cut it, that we need more, newer, better.
Well, a funny thing just happened. The folks at Bell Labs (now Alcatel-Lucent owned) have announced that they’ve figured out and done preliminary tests on a broadband delivery platform that works ten times faster than those “1-Gig” slowpokes. TEN TIMES faster! And guess what; the system uses copper wire! FTTP? Ooops. Never mind.
To be sure, it’s experimental, and the 10-Gig speed has only been proved over 30-meter distances on the copper wire. That would mean that fiber to the home could be replaced by a hybrid fiber-to-the-node coax system and would really be the “infrastructure of the future.” Hey, wait a minute, that’s what the industry has already built!
Now I have no idea what the future holds, or whether even a 1, let alone a 10-Gig system makes any sense whatsoever with regard to home broadband usage. That’s not the point. What this latest scientific development proves without any doubt, however, is that those who promote government mandated solutions for the technology that they might think is “the best” at any given moment are almost guaranteed to be wrong in the long run. Guessing where science and technology are going to go is a losing proposition, and “betting” public money, or requiring the expenditure of private money on the latest fad is just bad policy for both the government and private enterprise.
I’ve said repeatedly over the years that what we’re experiencing in the telecommunications space is an evolution, not a revolution. Yes, it can have revolutionary results. The effects of new technology have certainly changed the world. But those changes happen over time, and the technology constantly evolves. The “Fiber Miracle” phase should hopefully be just about over. The hype was way over the top, to borrow a phrase. Well before the “Google Fiber” PR machine arrived, the cable industry had started developing DOCSIS 3.1 back in 1999. It has “1-Gig” capability and always anticipated working on hybrid systems. Now it looks like the copper wires already in place around the nation may some day have capabilities ten times what was envisioned, and don’t be surprised if it winds up being more.
I’m in no way saying here that fiber is bad. It’s not, it’s good technology. But grabbing on to the latest technological craze is not the way to develop good policy, and it’s certainly not the way government should go about deciding that it has to spur “revolutionary” growth. That’s a formula for expensive excess. Let the evolution begin.