The Future of the U.S. is Municipal Broadband

Recent news of Gabriel Stricker returning to Google to lead policy and communications for Fiber has me quite excited about the future of broadband in the U.S. since it means Google, err Alphabet, is getting serious about its 1 GB/s fiber to the home (FTTH) service. Whether Fiber will drive mass adoption or spur fierce competition, the news comes at an opportune time for the country and for those without reliable home internet service.

Whether you still use AOL or have “cut the cord” to stream content, complaints about internet service providers (ISPs) comes during the introduction of Google Fiber in various cities throughout the country from Portland, Ore. to Tampa, Fla. At the moment, Google Fiber offers its service of 1 GB/s upload and download service (enough to download an HD movie in 7 seconds) for $70 per month, which is cheaper and faster than most offerings. In addition, the company is offering 5MB/s download and 1MB/s upload basic Internet deal for free (after a one-time $300 construction fee.)

The current build out of infrastructure is expensive and allows only one player in the market. There are so many dynamics of local government that would affect construction of a fiber-optic network, including: the height of the hills; the depths of flood zones; the density of housing; and the configuration of existing infrastructure like power poles, gas lines, and water pipes. It’s a ton of work but something that needs to be done for our cities to handle the Internet of Everything, smart networks, sensors, and cloud-based apps communicating with everyday devices from streetlights to stereos.

This is not to say that the thousands of miles of fiber-optic cable that Google is installing will be cheap. As with most technology, the initial cost is often offset by increasing adoption. Even with the deep Google coffers, the switch to fiber is an expensive task. The FCC currently says that it would cost $100 to 180 billion to get basic fiber into every home in the U.S. However, the FCC gave more than that (about $200B) after the passage of the Telecommunications Act to do just that.

The reason for these high costs are a combination of oligopolistic agreements between major providers and state legislatures putting restrictions on county- and city-provided broadband Internet services. Due to this, major ISPs have been shielded from competition, leading to higher costs and low-quality service. Even with paying for the service, this country is still stuck with the current cable companies. This risk/reward ratio is something that, as yet, AT&T and Verizon don’t seem to want to stomach.

With all these benefits and apparent small downside, why can’t someone like AT&T or Verizon just lay down fiber? Well they certainly are getting into the game, but have not yet become fully vested – as it may be about the lobbyists. With the introduction of fast connectivity, the corporate fear may be that municipalities would start eating into profits. Not only would these municipalities help to drive small businesses, but also they ultimately could stand behind an effort to make their cities better places to live and work. However, I wouldn’t bet on corporate interests being in favor of higher-speed services and lower prices for consumers; so expect the Fiber team to have their hands full.

So what would be needed to make the switch to universal connectivity on a national scale? First and foremost, last mile high-speed connectivity on an economical basis would need to be provided. The argument pretty much ends there. Fiber could lease these connections on a colo basis or ask municipalities to pull such connectivity from the utilities – which is exactly what they have been doing. AT&T, on the other hand, can wait for Fiber to go through regulatory processes and reap the benefits, as they have decades of expertise in building networks. Installing these fat pipes seems to be accelerating as is pushing the industry forward one city at a time.

While global IP traffic has increased more than fivefold in the past 5 years, and will increase nearly threefold over the next 5 years, I’m excited to see how Google and Stricker’s team push forward the conversation so that multi-gig connectivity is not only commonplace but also the modern standard for Internet service. The current contentious debate over net neutrality doesn’t address the need for gigabit-class Internet access to the public. We, as a country, need to start looking at the digital divide that is being created as one of the three primary things (water, power, and internet connectivity) that define the U.S. as a first-world country rather than a third-world country.

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