The U.S. Internet Is Being Starved of Its Potential: 2020 in Review

Over a year ago, EFF raised the desperate need for the United States to have a universal fiber infrastructure plan in order to ensure that all Americans can obtain access to 21st century communications technology. Since then, we’ve produced technical research showing why fiber is vastly superior to all the alternative last mile broadband options in terms of its future potential, published legal research on how the U.S. regulatory system started getting it wrong (as far back as 2005), and suggested a path forward at the federal and state level (including legislation) for transitioning the U.S. communications infrastructure toward a fiber-for-all future.

Since then, the pandemic changed our world, as remote work and education became a necessity for most people. At the very start of the stay-at-home orders, EFF expressed our concern that our failure to deliver ubiquitous, affordable, future-proofed infrastructure is going to hurt the most vulnerable. People that lack fiber infrastructure are stuck with second-class Internet access with limited potential as prices continue to rise, slow speeds become obsolete, and needs for better access grow. Most notably, in response to these problems, the House of Representatives passed a universal fiber plan as part of the COVID-19 recovery effort, and we continue to make the case to the U.S. Senate, which has passed no universal 21st-century broadband plan, as to why Majority Whip Clyburn’s Affordable, Accessible Internet Act is the federal answer.

But so long as our local, state, and federal governments do not prioritize delivering future-proofed infrastructure to all people, our ability to make full use of the 21st century Internet will be limited. New services and applications will be tested and created in Asia, not here, and the next Silicon Valley premised on high upload low latency applications and services will not be in California.

America Is Behind by Choices Made by a Handful of Political and Regulatory Leaders

A billion fiber optic connections to the Internet are coming online in just a few years. A large majority of them will be in Asia, primarily led by China. These connections have already proven to be future-proof, capable of reaching not just gigabit speeds, but multi-gigabit speeds. Fiber is not only faster; it’s also cheaper long-term.

On average, the United States has the slowest, most expensive Internet access market among advanced economies.

No other connection even comes close by comparison. The future of the Internet is going to be fiber. Just not in the United States. Yet. We could still change this.

But for now, the United States remains woefully behind dozens of advanced economies, with an overwhelming amount of the infrastructure dependent on slow legacy infrastructure primarily built in the late 20th century. Those legacy copper and coaxial cable connections have failed to deliver robust enough connectivity to handle the immediate remote work and remote education needs of COVID-19 pandemic. They will not handle the future. 

Moreover, their costs are increasing due to obsolescence and will be useless for future applications and services dependent on high-speed, low latency access. This lack of ubiquitous fiber is one of the reasons why the United States is so far behind 5G speeds available, even on downloads (see chart below).

 

On average, the United States has the slowest, most expensive Internet access market among advanced economies, which is choking off the Internet’s ability to be a force for improving American lives while the world marches forward. What the Internet becomes in the mid-to-late 21st century will not be an American story, unless we aggressively course-correct our infrastructure policies soon.

America Doesn’t Need a “Broadband Plan,” it Needs a Fiber Infrastructure Plan

A decade ago, the FCC issued a congressionally mandated “National Broadband Plan” establishing a goal of connecting 100 million U.S. homes to 100 mbps download and 50 mbps upload by 2020. While advancements in national download speeds have occurred due to some cable industry changes, hybrid fiber/coaxial cable systems are still failing to deliver robust upload speeds. In fact, during the pandemic when broadband access demand is extremely high, cable systems failed to deliver.

Essentially, the COVID-19 crisis increased our Internet usage by a year’s worth of growth in a few weeks.

Fiber was able to handle it, cable was not (and 5G just barely exists). Our technical analysis of broadband access options found overwhelmingly conclusive evidence that the inherent capacity in a fiber wire is orders of magnitude greater than all of the alternative wire and wireless options. And most recently we are now seeing wireless industry acknowledgement of the importance of widespread fiber to 5G’s future (but an absence of solutions other than “give us more money”).

While many in government will talk about how we need to get “broadband” to everyone, what they should really be talking about is how we get 21st-century-ready fiber infrastructure to everyone. This distinction is important because we have already spent billions upon billions of dollars building “broadband” with virtually nothing to show for it. That happened because we subsidized slow speeds on any old network with little expectation of future increases in capacity. For example, Frontier Communications received a large amount of federal subsidy but wasn’t forced to begin long term upgrades to cost-efficient fiber, resulting in the telecom carrier’s bankruptcy. They took all those federal dollars straight to the grave because all that was required was to deliver 10 mbps download/ 1 mbps upload Internet to as many people as possible. Those federal dollars were then squandered on propping up obsolete copper networks in rural markets, instead of long-term fiber, forcing us to have to spend the money again now on fiber.

This is why slow networks actually cost more than fiber; the number of years the investment remains useful is relevant to your total costs. The only state in the U.S. that appears to have escaped this fate was North Dakota, where nearly 67% of the state’s residents have gigabit fiber (the U.S. average sits around 30% of households). The reason broadband looks so different there is because local private and local public providers spent those dollars on fiber (and notably no national carriers sell broadband in North Dakota). Big legacy industry would love for the government to continue to spend large amounts of money on slow speed perpetual subsidies (which is still happening today from the FCC and in states like California) because it solves nothing and maintains their slow Internet monopoly.

Continued government spending on this approach though is akin to giving the Joker a pile of cash and watching him set it on fire.

 

The Absence of Regulation Is Part of the Problem 

The thing that holds back the large national broadband providers is the resistance to making long term investments in infrastructure as opposed to short term profits. As noted earlier, large publicly traded ISPs are ill-equipped to address the national need for fiber because of its high upfront costs and their standard three- to five-year return on investment formulas for determining where to build. This is why even densely populated cities like New York City (NYC) had to spend six years suing Verizon to expand fiber, despite the fact that it is completely profitable to serve all of New York City in the aggregate.

There are very few legitimate reasons densely populated cities like Los Angeles and Oakland aren’t near universal fiber at this point. Knowing this, EFF has called on the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) to simply require every broadband provider providing service throughout a major city with a population density in excess of 1,000 people per square mile to give everyone fiber as a condition of doing business in the state. It is already against state law to discriminate based on socio-economic status and the evidence is coming in that fiber is going to high-income and skipping low income neighborhoods. In fact, given that income can serve as a proxy for race, recent studies are showing that black neighborhoods are being skipped by fiber in Los Angeles County and high-speed access is being deployed along in a discriminatory fashion in Oakland that matches past redlining that occurred with housing.

California’s state law is already clear that you aren’t allowed to profit from unreasonable discrimination, but the regulator has to enforce those laws for it to matter. The FCC can also address this problem, but only after it reverses the federal deregulation that occurred in 2017 when it repealed net neutrality as part of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order. When broadband carriers are required to operate in a non-discriminatory manner (as required if we treat them as common carriers), it is much more than net neutrality, it is about how they deliver access infrastructure to the public as well. Until then, it will be on states and local governments to address this problem.

Localism in Broadband and Investments in Fiber Will Be How We Get 21st Century Access to All People 

If the large national carriers are ill-equipped to take on the societal challenge of connecting everyone to robust 21st-century ready access to the Internet, then we need to explore our alternatives and to rethink the government’s approach. The most promise appears to come from smaller, locally-held private and public entities who can take on long term patient investments without being subject to Wall Street fast profit expectations. Such entities are deploying fiber where national carriers have long ignored and are building the 21st century in areas previously left behind such as a Missouri cooperative United Fiber delivering fiber to the home at a density of only 2.5 people per square mile or the joint venture between Alabama Power (the state’s electric utility) and Mississippi’s C-Spire to deliver fiber to the home throughout the state of Alabama.

New models of delivering access are proving success such as Utah’s multi-city open access fiber, which has lowered the barrier of entry so much that more than a dozen small businesses can sell broadband services over the public network. When the pandemic hit, the network continued to expand within the state with new cities being announced on a regular basis as the need for high-speed access has exploded. And in places where fiber is already built, extraordinary opportunities are available to help low-income families such as Chattanooga’s free 10 year 100/100 mbps Internet offering with only $2.50 per student per month in charitable giving. 

If your community builds a highly efficient future proof network, things like free Internet access checked out at your local library with a little bit of government support become feasible, making it incumbent on every community to start figuring out how they’ll get it for themselves because by the year 2020 it should be clear the large nationals ISPs are not coming. To this extent, EFF will be supporting California legislation, SB 4, that would enable local communities to invest more than 1 billion dollars in public networks through bonds. And we will continue to support a national solution as proposed by Majority Whip James Clyburn’s Affordable, Accessible Internet for All, which establishes a universal fiber program that would completely eliminate the digital divide for this generation and the next. The federal legislation already passed the House of Representatives, but was not considered by the sitting United States Senate majority. We hope, given that broadband is as important as water and electricity today, that the Senate will move forward on a national broadband infrastructure package in 2021. The only reason the digital divide remains in 2020 is because too many in government willfully allowed it to continue.

This article is part of our Year in Review series. Read other articles about the fight for digital rights in 2020.

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Author: Ernesto Falcon

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