Features & Columns

High Fiber Showdown

Europe and Asia have overtaken America in the fiber optic speed war.
That's a big problem.

High Fiber Showdown | Excerpt

In an age cluttered with Instagram influencers, YouTube stars and Russian Twitter bots, it may feel as though we've reached peak internet. There is more on-demand content to consume than ever before, and it is possible to access from just about anywhere—as long as there is decent WiFi or cellular service.

But in her new book, Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution—And Why America Might Miss It, Susan Crawford argues that we are only scraping the surface of the web's potential. Furthermore, the John A. Reilly clinical professor at Harvard Law School says there is much more at stake than crystal-clear 4K television.

In fact, Crawford argues, if the United States continues to lag behind on its adoption of direct-to-consumer fiber optic networks, this country could miss out on "the next phase of human existence."

Bold words indeed. But Crawford stands by her predictions. "This poses a gigantic structural problem for the U.S., which is as important as electrification was in the '30s," Crawford says, speaking from her home in New York—her voice transmitted across the country via a network of cell phone towers, copper wire and pulses of light.

To put things simply, Crawford's new book is really about light. A universal constant, nothing in the known universe can travel faster. As such, burst of colored, encoded light can carry more information more rapidly than any other method of data transmission currently available.

Fiber optic cables are made up of miles-long, hair-thin strands of synthetic glass, capable of carrying light across long distances without any interference or loss of information. Occasionally, these arteries of information require boosts along the line, but the transfer of data is still virtually instantaneous. This means that devices running on end-to-end fiber optic networks have the potential to exchange data in essentially real time—even when the devices are connected via a near-field wireless signal at each terminus.

Unfortunately, while most of the world's major communication lines—America's included—are now fiber optic, Asia and Europe are leagues ahead in adopting "last-mile" or "fiber to the home" connections.

Americans subscribing to home internet service may be happy with 50 megabits per second of data downloading power and somewhere around 20 megabits per second of data upload. But there are countries in Asia where a majority of consumers can purchase internet service with download and upload speeds of 1,000 megabits per second—a "gigabit"—for less than Americans spend for their so-called "high-speed" connections.

When Netflix is working, emails load instantly and you can engage in a grainy video chat with mom and dad over the holidays, it may not seem like that big of a deal, but Crawford says it definitely is.

"People used to say, 'Why would you ever need more electricity?'" Crawford explains, reaching for an analogy she uses to great effect in Fiber—the painstaking but essential process of electrifying America. "It was viewed as a luxury, and people couldn't even imagine refrigeration."

Author Susan Crawford warns of grave consequences if America fails to focus on fiber connectivity.

Right now, American consumers are happy with their internet speeds because it's hard to imagine just how transformative gigabit internet access might be, but Crawford has at least one theory. While great strides have been made in video chatting in recent years, it is still impossible to achieve anything like person-to-person eye contact over digital devices, she observes. When we're video chatting, we never really feel like we're in the same room with another human being. And we never will, until we are all plugged in to an ultra-fast, all-fiber network.

"I think human presence is really the killer app," Crawford says. Virtual human presence would be revolutionary in so many fields, including healthcare, education and all kinds of business.

Indeed, having a remote, yet genuine, connection with a doctor, a professor or a cross-country colleague—with real eye contact—would be a game-changer, but there are even more applications that are impossible to envision at this stage. And given America's track record as a hotbed of innovation, our country's dearth of last-mile fiber connectivity means that unless we act fast, the next generation of disruptive technology will not come from the United States but from countries like China, South Korea, Singapore and Japan.

Even in Silicon Valley, fiber-to-the-home connections are uncommon. Though our region's two major providers of internet service—Comcast and AT&T—are tapped into our nation's fiber optic mainlines, most individual consumers are still connected to the large web by copper lines.

Some of Silicon Valley's most cutting-edge technologies will only be improved by faster internet connections everywhere. For example, autonomous vehicles will "require tsunamis of data in order to navigate themselves and persistent reliable connections," Crawford says.

A lack of fiber connections to individual homes may not hinder the viability of self-driving cars. However, until all cell towers and public WiFi nodes are plugged directly into the broader fiber network, autonomous vehicles won't be operating with up-to-the-microsecond information.

In her book, excerpted at right, Crawford makes the case that total fiber adoption is essential to the U.S. economy, and argues that the federal government needs to get involved in order to ensure this country doesn't fall further behind than it already has.

Susan Crawford will speak with Peter Rubin of Wired at Mechanic's Institute Library in San Francisco on Feb. 21.