Fiber is the future, Google agrees

Dann Fry

Waiting more than a second for Web pages and Internet-powered services to load should be a foreign idea. For most citizens of Sweden or South Korea, downloading a full HD movie wouldn’t take longer than a quarter-hour––in the USA, assuming you have a high-end cable connection, it would take half a day, and wouldn’t even be feasible with the dial-up and DSL connections still peddled to the majority of domestic Internet users.

More than 80 percent of Americans regularly use a personal computer for Internet access, yet a startling fraction––almost half––still use dial-up connections. Another fraction uses DSL lines, and a minority have high-speed broadband. This is an indicator that all of the United States’ connectivity currently runs, as it were, on rusty old phone lines, which are hardly even fit for the kind of data people use right now, and in the future will become unavoidably inadequate given the sheer volume of data taking up residence on the Internet.

Unless you’re willing to spend thousands with specialized providers, Internet connectivity in the United States is a joke. Currently the USA ranks pitifully low on a survey of world broadband infrastructures––South Korea took first toting an average download speed of 14.6Mb/s, with 18 other nations on the list before the USA, which boasts a meager 3.9Mb/s average. According to the same survey, more than 65 percent of US homes in areas where high-speed broadband is available have not yet upgraded from antiquated dial-up or DSL service; the adoption rate is even lower among impoverished, minority, and rural areas.

This is a problem. For a country that aims to be a leader in technology, not to mention the country from which the Internet initially grew, our government should be taking far greater steps toward upgrading our national Internet infrastructure. Presently, our government’s only answer to this issue is a suggestion––no actual plans have been solidified yet––by FCC chairman Julius Genachowski to broadband providers to “have at least 100Mb/s access to 100 million homes in the United States.” There’s currently no established timetable, no incentives for providers, and very little legislation for such improvements.

There is a troubling consensus among data infrastructure experts that as demand for high-speed Internet increases, connection speed for consumers will be limited far more by the capabilities of major “data highways”––essentially the cables that carry information across the world––than by the connections provided to people’s homes by broadband companies like Qwest or Comcast. This is a problem that reaches far beyond simply telling such companies to improve their service, which is all the FCC has done. There’s no reason a company that’s still making millions from dialup subscriptions would take the initiative to bury new fiber-optics throughout rural America. Realistically, a drastic renovation of our country’s data infrastructure is necessary. Such an initiative would ideally install fiber-optic ready networks in, at the very least, all major cities.

Fortunately for data-dependent humans, there is at least one organization currently pursuing such lofty goals. Google has recently announced an experimental ISP venture that aims to provide ultra-high-speed fiber connections to up to 500,000 American homes, at “a competitive price.” Most exciting about this––besides Google being an entity that unlike telecom companies and the government actually consistently does what they plan and does it well––is the speeds Google’s ISP promises. At 1Gb/s, communities who apply for the experimental network (Duluth is one of them) will be getting speeds more than 250 times faster than the nation’s average, and hopefully within a decade the service will be able to expand to anyone who wants it. “We want to see what developers and users can do with ultra high-speeds, whether it’s creating new bandwidth-intensive ‘killer apps’ and services, or other uses we can’t yet imagine,” said Google’s announcement. “We’ll test new ways to build fiber networks; to help inform, and support deployments elsewhere, we’ll share key lessons learned with the world.”