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Faster, cheaper, and more versatile than traditional telecom hardware, U.S. fiber networks still face policy hurdles

Fiber The Coming Tech Revolution—And Why America Might Miss It

Susan Crawford
Yale University Press
2019
260 pp.
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In her latest book, Fiber, legal scholar Susan Crawford writes about the role of fiber optic cables as the enormously capable conduits of digital data flows. According to Crawford, fiber is the technological enabler that affords true high-speed internet connectivity. But even though the technology is well understood, incumbent telecommunications providers in the United States have so far failed to bring fiber to most homes.

This has locked the American people into slow and outdated internet connections that are grossly overpriced, especially outside major urban areas, stifling innovation and economic growth and perpetuating social, economic, and geographic inequalities. And whereas in other nations, from Singapore to Sweden, regulators have worked to make fiber available and affordable for many, in the United States, federal and state policies have acted as
impediments to widespread fiber availability.

It’s a shocking reality of our times that in the United States, the cradle of the internet revolution, few have unhindered access to the fruits of that revolution. Crawford’s narrative is a damning indictment, grounded in facts, and a critically important story. But Fiber also offers a way out of connectivity misery, and as the book title suggests, bringing fiber into homes is the crucial element.

Even for those familiar with the subject, Fiber offers a number of valuable insights. Crawford reveals, for example, that we cannot innovate a work-around to compensate for the lack of fiber. She explains why in the context of so-called “5G” mobile connectivity, the wireless transmission technology that is the next step after the currently used Long-Term Evolution standard. But the point she makes is generalizable: The more data we want to convey, the fatter the “pipes” we need to deliver it all. In the wireless context, this translates into more wireless spectrum, higher frequencies, and dramatically more transmission stations (which all need to be connected to a fast-speed data network). Compared with over-the-air transmission, fiber is far more powerful and versatile.

A second and related point in favor of fiber’s superiority is its inherent upgradeability: Even decades-old fiber strands can be transformed into the fastest data highways by swapping the equipment at the end points that translates data into laser pulses. Much like with the original internet, the “intelligence” of fiber is on either end, not in the physical infrastructure that’s buried deep in the ground or strung high on telephone poles. That makes fiber networks surprisingly future-proof, a crucial advantage over alternative transmission technologies.

Perhaps Crawford’s most important point, however, has less to do with the technological viability of fiber and more to do with a different sort of challenge. The real obstacle to widespread fiber adoption in the United States, she argues, is regulatory policy. Incumbent telecommunications companies install outdated copper or coaxial cables into the homes of most of their customers and have thus far shown little interest in investing in high-speed fiber. To insulate themselves from the forces of competition, they have successfully lobbied federal and state legislatures to maintain innumerous hurdles for would-be fiber competitors.

After a few years of investing in fiber networks, even Google with its deep financial pockets has scaled back its ambition. This has left thousands of small and medium-sized communities without real high-speed access to the internet. In response, some municipalities and local cooperatives have taken over where Google and other alternative providers left off.

Crawford is at her best when describing the astonishingly innovative organizational setups of community-based fiber initiatives and how they came about, when detailing the machinations of telecom incumbents and their lobbyists to cripple these initiatives, and when explaining how local champions of fiber have sometimes been able to neutralize attempts to derail them.

Quite often, the Goliaths still win. But Crawford also portrays the Davids that succeeded. In doing so, she makes clear that there is no one-sized solution that fits all contexts. Rather, local victory requires a combination of guts and persistence combined with an inclusive plan that addresses the real needs of the community in question.

The final ingredient required for successful fiber implementation, Crawford suggests, is leadership. This is where I have a small gripe with the book. In Singapore, one of Crawford’s key examples of comprehensive fiber connectivity, it was a tireless American named Andrew Haire, working in a key role in the Singapore telecommunications regulatory agency, who championed and ensured a regulatory structure that kept connectivity high, rates low, and incumbents in check. Unfortunately, Haire isn’t mentioned in Fiber, even though his is an example that offers telling evidence that when national and state politicians fail to step up to the plate, others can lead.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3JS, UK.