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February 15, 2010

Fiber to the Neighborhood

The Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA) has asked the Vermont State Legislature for $5 million dollars of capital for "middle mile" infrastructure; the request was included in Governor Jim Douglas proposed capital budget. If appropriated, this money will be used along with the $40 million in revenue bonding authority the VTA already has to build radio communications sites for cellular service and wireless broadband and to bring fiber connections to Vermont neighborhoods. Most of the cost of this infrastructure will come from the private sector; some may come from stimulus grants; but the capital appropriation is needed to get moving sooner rather than much later. If we wait long enough, private money alone will probably build towers and fiber everywhere. Waiting, however, means not only a lack of economic development in the places where communications are still sub-standard, it also means the whole state loses out on the benefits of 100% connectivity (more on that argument here). This post is about the importance of fiber to the neighborhood.

When your phone company tells you that you can't get DSL – which is brought to you over your copper phone wires, it's probably because there is no fiber in your neighborhood.

When your iPhone slows to a crawl, it's probably because there's no fiber to your neighborhood cell tower.

If you don't have a nearby cell tower at all, you probably won't get one until there is fiber in your neighborhood.

Fiber optic cable caries the vast majority of the world's data (voice is just a small part of data) almost everywhere that data goes. Incredible amounts of data can speed incredible distance on light waves channeled through thin fibers; the bundles of fiber can be coiled; they can turn corners; and the light stays in the fiber and gets where it's going. Except in big cities and modern development, most of this fiber hangs from electric transmission poles; some travels through conduit; some is in sewer pipe; and some just lies on the ground. The modern Internet simply wouldn't exist without fiber optic technology.

Very few of us have fiber connections all the way to our homes. Fiber links telephone company central offices (and some remote locations); but copper wires carry voice and data from the end of the fiber to our phones and computers. Copper works for carrying data short distances; it's not very good for carrying it far. That's why you can get fast DSL in the center of town and can't even get slow DSL at the end of the road.

Cable companies use fiber to bring their television channels and data services to your neighborhood. They then use coaxial cable (cheaper to splice into and to connect to devices) to carry a signal to and from your house. When a new town gets cable service, first it gets fiber to the neighborhoods.

Cell towers and the antennas of wireless internet service providers are better and better for transmitting larger and larger amounts of data for short distances. But they have to be connected to the Internet. That connection is rarely by radio (although it sometimes is); in most cases the best way to assure that a tower has enough connectivity is to attach it to a fiber spur which is attached to the rest of the (mostly fiber) Internet.

A key part of Vermont's telecommunications plan is to work with private companies to assure that there is fiber in every neighborhood. Remember, we have fiber already in most downtown locations – although perhaps not enough and perhaps not enough competition among fiber providers. We now need fiber in small towns and remote neighborhoods. It needs to reach all the way to our government offices (because they are now data factories and repositories and need to be reachable online); it needs to reach the schools, which will quickly become reliant on high speed broadband to bring courses from all over the world to local classrooms. The fiber needs to reach hospitals and even health clinics. And it needs to be close enough to your house so that copper, radio, or coaxial cable can bring reasonably fast broadband to your computer (and your television).

Some people say we should have fiber all the way to every house. Some people in Burlington and in the Springfield area do have fiber connections to their homes. Maybe someday we all will. If that happens, the fiber we're now building to neighborhoods will have been a needed step along the way. Meanwhile, fiber to the 'hood will help make sure all have at least adequate broadband connections even if some other technology connects the last mile.

More about VTA plans for last mile infrastructure is here.

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