“Fiber at last, Fiber at last …

by Nov 1, 2017Technology0 comments

Thank God almighty, I have fiber at last.”

Ok, I admit getting optical fiber-based home Internet service is not comparable to human “freedom”, but it sure does feel good!

I am aware of five distinct access technologies that can be used to surf the Internet: 1) Coaxial Cable 2) Copper Twisted Pair (DSL) 3) Cellular 4) Satellite and 5) Optical Fiber.

Of these, fiber is by far the most superior from a throughput (think Gbps), predictability (no interference) and future-proof perspective. I will go so far as to say: “fiber is the holy grail of Internet access”. Once you run fiber directly into a home or business, ALL possibilities for the Internet suddenly come alive. You can now think of implementing data-intensive applications such as ultra-high definition TV (think telemedicine), virtual reality and many others which have not yet been invented.

Fiber is such a superior medium of data transmission that nearly 100% of the Internet backbone runs on it. You will be hard-pressed to find core segments of the Internet that are running on any of the aforementioned access technologies. But if fiber is so great, and it holds the key to our future, then why is there such a dearth of it in the “last mile” of the Internet?

The answer (at least in the US) is cost and to a lesser extent regulation. The cost side is easy to understand; replacing or augmenting existing telephone wire or coaxial cable is very expensive— particularly when what you already have is perceived to be “good enough”. Because of the prohibitive cost, the vast majority of US fiber installations are either new construction, multi-tenant dwellings (apartments) or strung from utility poles. Digging up existing underground cables and replacing with fiber into a premises, is a cost most service providers are not willing to bear. And unless government regulators push and/or incentivize them, it may never happen for some segment of the population.

To illustrate, let me draw upon my own recent experience. I live in Fremont, CA (a mere 20 miles from Google’s headquarters) and until two months ago (August, 2017) I had only two viable options for home Internet access: 1) low-speed DSL service from AT&T or 2) cable service from Comcast. I suffered for years with DSL service that had 6.4 Mbps download and 700 Kbps upload. To give you an idea of how bad this was: if we streamed a movie from Amazon, not only was the fidelity poor, but regular Internet access would perceptibly slow down as well. In retrospect, I should have upgraded to cable, but AT&T kept promising that fiber would be coming to my neighborhood soon, so I foolishly held on.

After waiting for years, one fine day this past August, an AT&T installation crew rolled up to my house and within 3  hours—voila!—I was finally on the fiber superhighway. I opted for the relatively slow 100 Mbps service (believe it or not it is cheaper than my old crappy DSL service), but I sleep well at night knowing that 1 Gbps service is only a phone call—and an extra $30 per month—away, if I ever need it.

I talked to the AT&T installation crew about the fiber rollout in Silicon Valley and they told me right now they are only retrofitting houses that have aerial (utility pole) access. Ironically the AT&T installer I was talking to wanted AT&T fiber at his house, but unfortunately access into his house was underground. This is the only time I think I will ever be grateful that I live in a neighborhood with unsightly utility poles.

Fiber penetration in the US remains woefully low and I don’t think that will change anytime soon. Even the almighty Google is struggling to make a run of it. After 7 years of trying, they appear to be giving up on the idea of Google Fiber. Click on this map of the Google Fiber footprint: it is small and not growing.

Fiber to the home penetration rates in other countries, compared to the U.S., are very robust. Major industrialized countries such as Japan and South Korea have nearly covered their entire country with fiber and even China appears to be ahead of the U.S. in this metric. There is always time to catch up—a little forward thinking government intervention could make fiber for all a reality in the U.S. I won’t hold my breath waiting, but I still thank my lucky stars that I have joined the fiber revolution!