Do you live on a dirt road? I doubt it. Most of us live on paved streets off wide avenues and not too far from an expressway that connects us to the far corners of the country. If you have to drive down a dirt road to get home, you are part of a small minority that lives in very rural areas. While almost one-third of all roads in America are dirt or gravel, they connect only a small percentage of all homes.
Do you have electricity? Running water? Mail delivery? Phone service—landline or wireless? You probably have those, and like the roads, they are furnished by a local authority that considers these services the necessities of life in modern America.
Well, since the pandemic started, people have discovered that the internet is an essential service. As many people are working from home for the first time, they have learned that without adequate internet, they are missing an essential utility and a necessity for everyday work.
It’s surprising that the internet has performed as well as it has, considering the traffic level has been more than 50% higher than normal. That’s thanks to the wisdom of the internet designers and all that fiber installed in the last 30 years.
What we’ve learned during this time, however, is that at least one in five Americans is without adequate internet service. People trying to work from home have been driving to parking lots of schools, libraries, hotels, businesses and government buildings to gain internet access and work from their cars. Some areas have outfitted school buses as portable Wi-Fi hot spots to help connect citizens.
Why is this happening? The internet has been around for more than 25 years. I was one of the first to get broadband, a cable modem installed in February 1997 in a Boston suburb. We had worked with the developers and did one of the first field-trials of cable modem service in my kids’ school system. It only took a few years for those with cable TV service to have access to broadband.
To compete with cable companies, phone companies tried to convert old copper phone lines to digital subscriber lines (DSL). DSL technology was not a success, to put it mildly. Most phone lines were too old and in poor condition. DSL was limited in distance and, even after more than 20 generations of development, never really became successful.
In 2006 and 2007, the Fiber Optic Association worked with Verizon to help jump start its FiOS fiber to the home (FTTH) service. FTTH made sense because part of Verizon’s market was fast-growing suburbs in California craving the fastest internet, and the Northeast had the oldest copper network that was too expensive to maintain and not usable for DSL.
If these technologies have been around so long and the internet has become so necessary, why do so many people not have adequate service? The answer is economics and technology.
In a city, for example, most people have cable TV service because it was cheap and easy to install in dense areas. Rural areas are served mainly by satellite TV because of the cost of cabling. The same holds for FTTH. I’ve looked at enough FTTH networks to know the costs. A dense urban system costs about $500 per subscriber to build, while rural systems can cost as much as $2,000 per subscriber.
Most U.S. service providers are private companies looking to make a profit. It’s much easier to make a profit in urban areas, particularly high-income urban areas. All the rural systems I know were done by municipalities, co-ops or private real estate developers. In the towns or co-ops, those wanting service were willing to pay for it. For the real estate developers, they knew the service would pay for itself in higher home prices.
Incumbent service providers never had much interest in rural areas, and, in the last decade, they have lost interest in connecting subscribers on fiber or cable anyway. They are all infatuated with wireless, especially the mythical 5G.
I am certain that many of you have been working at home since March, with spouses also working, possibly with kids doing schoolwork. Now, you probably understand the limitations of current internet service. Getting better service will require a lot more fiber and a change in public opinion. Shouldn’t we consider the internet a utility, the same as roads, electricity, water and the other services we deem essential?
Tell that to your local government.