It’s been clear for many years that the US has an infrastructure problem due to having not put money into roads, bridges, dams, and other key public infrastructure. Those of us in the broadband industry also understand we have a huge infrastructure deficit when we look around at the state of broadband that’s limping along on sixty-year-old copper networks. An article was published in the Washington Post in December that points out that the bandwidth deficits affect a lot more than home broadband.
The article points out that the National Weather Service admits it has a bandwidth problem and is seeking to throttle back the public’s ability to gain access to real-time weather data. The NWS is the collector of the huge amount of weather data that is reported from numerous weather stations, sensors, and satellites.
Numerous other businesses collect data from the NWS and disseminate weather information to the public. Airline pilots rely on real-time data in plotting a course around bad weather. We use real-time data to know when to pause sporting events from little league games to pro sports. People rely on real-time weather information during bad weather – it’s vital for folks living in or near the path of a tornado to see where the storm is heading in real-time. And we all have built real-time weather forecasting into our daily lives. The weather apps we use don’t just tell us that it’s going to rain later today, they tell us it’s likely to start raining in 14 minutes, allowing us to plan appropriately. Society is clearly harmed in we no longer have access to real-time weather information.
It turns out the National Weather Service problems are solvable by updating computers and broadband connections. It’s a shame that the agency didn’t figure out a way to solve the problem before it was time to start rationing weather data, but the same statement can be made about all of our infrastructure problems.
For example, the telephone copper networks in Germany are roughly the same age as the ones in this country, and perhaps even a little older on average. Where the big telcos in the US simply stopped maintaining and upgrading copper networks, German telcos have continued with maintenance programs and continued to upgrade the electronics. Where DSL speeds in the US are generally under 30 Mbps (and often far slower) in towns and are often at speeds far under 10 Mbps in rural areas, the German DSL networks deliver much faster broadband. It’s not unusual to find DSL in cities at 100 Mbps and rural broadband at speeds up to 40 Mbps in Germany – all due to the fact that there was a push to get the best possible speeds out of the networks.
The Germans know that copper networks are near to the end of life and are in the process of upgrading to fiber, but rather than suffer from slow broadband speeds in the meantime the German telcos are milking the best speeds they can out of the old copper networks.
I am asked at least several times each month why upgrading to fiber is important. Underlying this question is the fear that the speeds on fiber will be obsolete in a few years in the same manner that has happened to DSL. After all, DSL has only been around for twenty years and went from state-of-the-art technology to become obsolete in a relatively short period of time. Communities don’t want to invest in fiber technology if it has the same path forward.
My answer to this question brings both good news and bad news. The good news is that fiber is almost infinitely upgradeable. I have no doubt that scientists will keep finding ways to milk more speeds out of laser technology. A new fiber network today can be built to deliver a symmetrical gigabit to everybody, and the sky is the limit on fast the network can go – the glass is capable of multi-terabit speeds.
But my answer also comes with a warning. Anybody that operates a fiber network has to be prepared to upgrade the electronics periodically. If somebody builds a fiber network and treats it the same way that big telcos have treated DSL, then that network is going to start having problems in a decade and might be barely limping along in twenty years. This is one of my biggest concerns about the big telcos taking grants to build rural fiber networks – are they going to keep up with the needed maintenance and upgrades? Their broadband history would indicate otherwise. Fiber is not automatically a great technology – it can be a great technology when operated by a great ISP.