A fiber-optic grid is an infrastructure project everyone can get behind.
Brown-EZ. Brown-Secure. Brown-Guest. These, as every Brown student knows, are the main wi-fi networks on campus. Forgive me if I’ve lost you: Brown’s so-called wireless Internet probably deserves to be known by other four letter words than “wi-fi.” After all, it randomly slows down and often stops working entirely, at seemingly the worst possible times. While this is simply a nuisance to most people, it’s also emblematic of a larger problem with America’s Internet infrastructure. Slow or insufficient bandwidth is common across the United States, and lagging networks lead to economic costs. Worse, these costs will escalate as global productivity becomes increasingly tied to technology. In response, some have ambitiously advocated for a national grid made up of fiber-optic cable. Although fulfilling their vision would require a significant investment from both private and public sources, it might be the key to bridging America’s digital gap.
To see why fiber-optic cable is needed — or for that matter, why any change at all is needed — we need to fully appreciate the extent of the connectivity problem. According to the latest figures from the Pew Research Center, three out of every 10 Americans do not have high-speed bandwidth. Not only does this amount to 90 million people, but access is further hampered by area-based barriers like geography, population, and local economies. However, let’s say that all of the slow- or no-Internet families signed up with a service provider right now. The situation wouldn’t substantially improve: Pew, along with the Federal Communications Commission, defines “high-speed bandwidth” by upload and download speeds that are so low as to be “absurd.” At least, that was the assessment of Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former special assistant to the president for science, technology, and innovation policy. Crawford goes on to point out that with these low standards, you couldn’t even stream a Netflix movie.
But what’s so important about having something to watch on demand? Is that really an infrastructure problem worth solving when our streets and bridges are crumbling as well? Crawford has an answer here too. She writes, “If you substitute ‘first-class interactive education’ or ‘telemedicine’ instead of Netflix movies, then you’ll understand why current and future applications need a high-capacity connection.” New fiber-optic lines would use light waves rather than electricity as their means of transmission. As a result, download speeds could reach one gigabit per second — several hundred times faster than the FCC’s paltry requirements for “high-speed bandwidth.” To put all of this in more familiar terms, a fiber-optic grid in the United States would mean that huge files like HD movies could be downloaded in seconds. Video conferencing would become vastly easier, thereby making it a standard means of communication. People could connect to all sorts of essential resources, and the result would be a massive increase in economic productivity.
However, there is one caveat. Internet speed is limited by the weakest link in the chain of cable and routers used to hook up a computer. As such, if one person on the block gets fiber-optic cabling, the result will be insignificant. Whole areas need to be wired in at once, and here’s where the private sector is having trouble. Google recently pioneered “Google Fiber” in Kansas City, laying the necessary cables in order to bring one-gigabit speed to those that wanted to sign up. However, sizeable expenses have pre- vented it from being profitable on a large scale. That’s why companies like Google and Verizon — which halted its plans to offer fiber-optic service — are progressing in such a localized and incremental manner. Given the private sector’s difficulties in raising the necessary capital, it might be time to ask the government to lend a hand. Naturally, free-market advocates are skeptical at this kind of interventionism. However, a fiber-optic grid might not just be allowable under libertarian principles, but recommendable.
This argument hinges on whether the fiber-optic issue lies within the strictly natural funding and regulatory purviews of the federal government. In terms of funding, a fiber-optic grid presents what economists call a collective action problem. Essentially, this is a scenario in which a positive outcome can only arise if everyone makes the same decision. Because “fiber-to-the-home” connections are only useful if they’re linked up to a broader, equally fast network, then one person’s decision to buy in won’t have any effect. They need their neighbors to also make the same purchase, and without the unilateral coordination inherent in government intervention, that kind of cooperation is extremely rare. Let’s be clear: Individual, private-sector transactions are preferable to government involvement in most cases. However, a fiber-optic grid is one of the special exceptions in which everyone benefits only if one decision-making body takes the audacious step of making the initial investment.
This kind of collective action problem is not without precedent. The Interstate Highway Act of 1956 — the greatest infrastructure project in U.S. history — is a close parallel to a national fiber-optic proposal. It linked the country together, supercharged commerce, and helped produce over a decade of prosperity. Such desirable results couldn’t have come about without government involvement, for no private entity had the financial resources or coordination to create a standardized, national system of roads. The man who signed this spending measure into law was President Eisenhower, a small-government Republican, but he knew that infrastructure was an ideal supply-side investment. Now it’s time to revamp our modern Internet highway, by installing a network of fiber-optic cable.
In terms of regulation, the Internet should be seen as part of the same class as waterworks or the electrical grid. Because it’s inefficient to have, say, two competing power companies servicing the same area, they coalesce into natural monopolies. Since com- petition is the linchpin of the free market, these monopolies would be highly counterproductive if they existed without some modicum of government involvement. Here we have an odd circumstance: Government regulation actually increases economic efficiency. Where do fiber-optic cables fit in? First, there would only ever be one fiber-optic grid on a given tract of land. This would result in a natural monopoly, and government attention would be necessary. Second, the Internet is increasingly a staple of modern life, and it will be on par with power, water, and sewage systems in the near future. With fiber-optic cables, the Internet will be naturally organized in much the same way as these basic utilities. Shouldn’t government treat it the same and help provide widespread access?
Nonetheless, fiscal conservatives might balk at this project’s price tag. The Interstate Highway Act was not cheap, and with growing concerns about American insolvency many question if we have the means to undertake great projects. Surprisingly, the evidence indicates that we can. According to the Cambridge Strategic Management Group, a technology consulting firm, the U.S. government could install a national fiber-optic network for $50-$90 billion. This is not cheap, but the investment would be spread over several years of construction, and private-sector contractors could be hired to improve efficiency and lower costs. If costs run over, as they tend to do with Development government projects, the benefits will still likely outweigh the initial investment. In a study of bandwidth’s effect on local economic growth, Jed Kolko of the Public Policy Institute of California found a compelling relationship between the two variables, particularly in rural areas. His findings make sense, especially in the context of the 1990s’ computer- and Internet-driven economic expansion. With fiber-optic service, millions of Americans could reach a new level of consumption power and gain access to opportunities — like online education — that they didn’t have before.
Time is of the essence. Cisco predicts that by 2017, global bandwidth usage will have tripled from its 2012 levels. Yet the Organization for Economic Co-operation and recently revealed that America ranks 15th in broadband connectivity. If the United States hopes to lead the pack, or even keep pace, then it has to do better. Seriously looking into a strong, national fiber-optic backbone would be an excellent place to start. If nothing else, Brown students would be grateful.