A strange chasm is opening up across the landscape of home telecommunications. On one side, bold visionaries are bringing the tremendous information-carrying capacity of optical fibers all the way to homes. On the other side, stodgy and stingy corporations are clinging to aging copper wires, claiming that homes don’t really need fiber’s bandwidth-and that fiber is too expensive anyway. The reluctance of the telecom companies bodes badly for the future.An imbalance of innovation is a familiar story, but the distribution in this case is something new. Rural communities, normally the last folks to benefit from new technologies, are among the first to get fibers. So are new subdivisions on the outskirts of urban areas. An odd mix of public utilities, small telephone companies, and real estate developers are backing the new technology. Their resources are miniscule compared with those of the corporate behemoths that provide telephone and cable television service in urban and suburban America. Yet the giants are doing virtually nothing to bring fibers to homes-not even in established affluent communities that would seem likely targets for high-end versions of today’s broadband services. Worse, these companies are turning to lobbyists and lawyers to block smaller rural innovators from stringing their own fiber networks.
This is not, alas, a new phenomenon. Never in the quarter century that I have been writing about the business and technology of fiber optics have the established service providers shown much interest in bringing fibers to homes. While telephone and cable television companies spent like drunken sailors on fiber-optic backbone networks between their own facilities during the telecom bubble of the late 1990s, these outfits now insist that there’s no money to be made by stringing fibers to homes. It’s an attitude that has already left the United States far behind South Korea in broadband deployment. Efforts to block others from deploying fiber in rural areas raise some troubling questions about where the telecommunications industry is going.
The United States had telecommunications visionaries three decades ago, when John Fulenwider, then an engineer at GTE Laboratories in Massachusetts, first suggested stringing optical fiber to homes. It was part of a project to build “wired cities”-an idea that grew out of birth of cable television and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs. The plan was to offer households a broad but vaguely defined family of services, including interactive television and perhaps video telephones. Fulenwider thought fiber could do the job better than copper coaxial cable. U.S. wired city experiments soon stalled, however, the victims of government budget cuts, public apathy, a slumping economy, and industry lethargy. Instead of telebanking, security monitoring, and electronic news services, we got a few dozen channels of one-way cable TV.
Outside of the United States, wired city projects fared better. Japan, for example, hooked up fibers to 150 homes in a “new town” in 1978. Canada ran fibers to 158 homes in rural Elie and Ste. Eustache, Manitoba, in 1981. France tried a bigger system later. The technology worked, and the French and Japanese systems offered some two-way video service. Yet those extras were expensive, and the only other innovation was a primitive information service called videotex-a Stone Age version of an Internet news and data feed that could barely squeeze 100 words on a screen-not enough to justify the steep cost of the new hardware.
Big U.S. companies have looked halfheartedly at the fiber-to-the-home idea several times since, but have never wavered from their early conviction that running fiber to individual residences would be too expensive. Instead, phone companies jury-rigged their aging networks of copper wires to carry data on so-called digital subscriber lines (DSL). Cable television companies upgraded their networks for two-way service, more channels, and cable modems. Both phone and cable companies use fibers to distribute signals to switching points within neighborhoods, but old-fashioned copper takes the signal from there to individual homes. Verizon is talking about running fibers by as many as one million customers in 2004, but read between the lines and it’s more of the same: pushing fibers further into the neighborhoods when they replace decaying copper cables. The company promises more bandwidth to homes eventually-but talk is cheap. As a Verizon customer, I’ll believe it when I see the truck outside my house.