“It [fibre] is basic infrastructure for a good life”. So ends a new book by Susan Crawford, a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, on the plight of delivering better broadband for Americans.
The book “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution and Why America Might Miss It” 1 comes at an interesting time as the hype around 5G and the tech wars between the USA and China appear to be continuing to escalate.
The title seems to play on this theme and endeavour to push the strategic rivalry beyond the usual artificial intelligence, semiconductor and 5G battlefields into a broader question of national infrastructure.
After all, the creation of the American national highway system by President Eisenhower was mainly in response to the need to be able move US forces quickly and efficiently around continental North America in response to any threats during the Cold War.
However Crawford does not head in this direction. Her focus is not on strategic rivalry between the USA and its real or imagined foes. Crawford, who has previously written on the power of the telecom and cable monopolies and was a Special Assistant to President Obama on broadband policy, stays focussed on purely civilian matters.
For Crawford, fibre infrastructure is the 21st century equivalent of the basic utility infrastructure built in the 19th and 20th centuries that most people take for granted today – namely roads, railways, sewage, water, telephony and electricity infrastructure.
“It [fibre] is basic infrastructure for a good life” she concludes at the very end of the book.
I approached this book initially from the perspective of trying to find any nuggets that will be useful for Australia’s recovery from its own unfolding broadband nightmares in the form of the government funded National Broadband Network (NBN). For non-Australians, this project was launched in 2009 to provide full fibre to the home to 93% of Australia’s businesses and homes. But the fibre rollout ceased in 2013 after a change of government and the remaining premises are now only getting DSL and cable broadband upgrades.
Crawford has been an advocate for government intervention and ownership of fibre broadband infrastructure for some time. In this book she suggests that the US government should fund “much more than $US80 billion to wire all of the country’s last mile with fibre” – a figure some officials have estimated would be needed to upgrade cable and fibre system.
Australia’s taxpayer funding of the NBN is currently planned to be approximately $A 50 billion. When scaled using comparative GDPs, this is equivalent to a $US 510 billion spent on broadband upgrades across the USA.
So how does the USA compare to Australia in terms of the availability of high-speed broadband?
Data for Australia (2022) taken from NBN Co 2019-2022 Corporate Plan 2
Data for Australia (2018) from Australian Bureau of Statistics 3
Data for USA (2017) Internet Access Services : Status as of June 30.2017, Federal Communications Commission 4
As can be seen above, Australia currently has more full fibre connections than the USA, but this is not forecast to grow given the brownfields fibre NBN rollout has stopped. The USA has significantly more HFC connections as a result of the dominance of Comcast and Charter communications and the high coverage and penetration of cable TV. At the end of the NBN rollout in Australia, DSL will still be the predominant technology serving 40% of broadband connections.
In terms of broadband user experience the USA currently rates 8th on global rankings provided by Speedtest / Ookla with download speeds of 111 Mbps. Australia is ranked 60th with download speeds of 33 Mbps.
Please click the chart below to expand for more detail
Data from Ookla Speedtest Global Index 5
Australia’s higher percentage of fibre connected premises appears not to have helped in raising its standing in global speed rankings. The low takeup of 100Mbps download plans on the NBN even where fibre is available (due to high price points) seems to be the main factor in negating Australia’s current advantage in terms of the fibre rollout. The higher speeds available on HFC compared to DSL also provide another advantage for the USA v Australia in this comparison.
The inevitable conclusion to draw from the above is the taxpayer funded rollout of the NBN has not provided a better experience for Australians. Rather the high costs of the services to consumers combined with the continued deployment of older technologies (DSL in particular) means Australians are still languishing well down the global broadband speed rankings.
Many will argue that the original fibre rollout to 93% of premises would have catapulted Australia to the top of the rankings. However, the costs of 100Mbps and 1Gbps services would need to have been significantly reduced to ensure the higher speeds were taken up. This would only have been possible if the government, as NBN Co’s shareholder, had agreed to both the inevitable financial losses and also agreed to support NBN Co financially on an ongoing basis.
However, Crawford does not cover any of these issues with the Australian NBN in her book advocating public sector funding of fibre rollouts in the USA.
Instead, Crawford benchmarks the USA against the usual leaders in fibre broadband rollouts – namely South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong (where I currently live and work) and Japan. Sweden, and in particular Stockholm, is also highlighted and some passing references are made to New Zealand.
These countries have all followed different paths to fibre global leadership.
South Korea and Japan have involved governments and private industry pursuing national goals in close co-operation. This is normal practice for these countries where strategic national development is a combined public and private undertaking.
Singapore and New Zealand have used direct government subsidies to established telcos to stimulate the building of fibre networks on a national scale.
Stockholm, in many ways the forerunner of city based municipal fibre networks, has involved public authorities using their access to rights of way and city infrastructure to create an open access dark fibre network that has enabled efficient and extensive competition to develop at the retail level.
Hong Kong has followed a purely private sector funded infrastructure competition model with government purposefully de-regulating bottleneck copper access to encourage fibre builds.
In the USA, Crawford draws on the experience of over 500 municipal fibre networks to highlight that grass roots communities can succeed despite the challenges of working against large companies and a system that is designed to beat them. Chattanooga, Tennessee, is the poster child city with a fibre network built by the public owned electricity authority that now connects 100,000 premises (amounting to a 60% take-up rate).
A number of other smaller cities are profiled but it is clear that many communities in the USA will find the challenges too great. At one point Google Fibre was the hope for these cities, but since they pulled out of further city fibre network builds in late 2016, these municipalities will need to do the heavy lifting themselves. As one municipal fibre network advocate says, “It’s a lot to get up to speed. It’s a long learning curve. It’s a long move to get there”.
A more hopeful case may be found in San Francisco, where Crawford outlines the efforts by the city’s Board of Supervisors to build a municipal fibre network that will be commensurate with the hi-tech image of the city and Silicon Valley. However, as Crawford predicts, this challenge to the incumbents (AT&T and Comcast) will likely become a “kind of holy war”.
The clear message is that the USA needs communities and governments to take on the likes of AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter and CenturyLink in order to have any hope of building fibre networks that will match the leaders in Asia and increasingly China.
But Crawford comes across as believing that the communities will only have limited successes. Hence the call for the Federal US government to step and provide extra direct funding and more incentives (eg. tax breaks) for private new startups to take on the established telcos in the USA.
But Crawford does not go as far as calling for the effective nationalisation and re-monopolisation of fixed broadband infrastructure such as that undertaken in Australia. Competition between municipal and private networks that are supported with government funding on one hand and the existing large broadband providers is preferred given the state of the American market.
For Australia, the idea of local or state governments taking an active role in fibre infrastructure is far-fetched. The Australian constitution clearly makes telecommunications a federal responsibility – hence any such community or state action will be difficult. The best that can be hoped for is that local and state governments ease processes for building the necessary civil infrastructure.
So unfortunately this book does not provide any insights or plans that can help Australia out of its current broadband predicament.
However the book does provide some compelling stories of how fibre broadband can bring more value to communities than on-demand TV entertainment (i.e the Netflix / YouTube phenomenon). Fibre, given its low latency and near unlimited bandwidth, is vital for education, health and the upcoming backbone of IoT and 5G networks. The social and economic benefits of fibre are not quantified but rather equated with the major infrastructure rollouts of the 19th and 20th century (eg. water, sewage, electricity, road networks etc).
The comparison with the benefits of electricity networks is most compelling. Crawford explains how Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic President of the 1960s, became a hero in his local communities of the Hill Country near Austin, Texas through his advocacy for the provision of electricity to these rural communities. “He brought the lights. No matter what Lyndon was like, we loved him because he brought the lights”, the local community beneficiaries are quoted as saying.
In my view, there is a case for government funding of fibre buildouts into areas that the private sector finds uneconomic. Good quality broadband will be fundamental for all citizens wherever they are located to be able to participate in the 21st century society and economy.
The Australian experience shows that taxpayers’ money can also be wasted on building out fibre (and broadband infrastructure more generally) into urban and metropolitan areas that the private sector can deliver more economically as long as competition is the driver.
It is much better to save the government funding for the communities that the private sector will never touch or where competition is not able to drive private sector investment so that as many people as possible can have “basic infrastructure for a good life”.
This book is well worth a read for those who are interested in a better understanding of the complexities and vested interests involved in delivering broadband infrastructure. This is especially the case in markets like the USA and Australia where the private and public sectors are not aligned in their strategies for building this important infrastructure for the 21st century.
For a more detailed analysis on my views on what to do with the NBN please check out my piece in the Australian Journal of Telecommunications and the Digital Economy (https://telsoc.org/ajtde/2018-11-v6-n4/a162)
- Available on Amazon or https://yalebooks.yale.edu/book/9780300228502/fiber ↩
- NBN Co 2018 Corporate Plan available at https://www.nbnco.com.au/content/dam/nbnco2/2018/documents/media-centre/corporate-plan-report-2019-2022.pdf ↩
- Available at http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/8153.0/ Note NBN Co FTTN/B connected premises of 30 June 2018 have been manually re-allocated to DSL rather than categorised as “Fibre” ↩
- Available at https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DOC-355166A1.pdf ↩
- Available at https://www.speedtest.net/global-index ↩