Don’t delay the fiber future

By: David Young

There is no disputing that fiber is the best wireline broadband communications infrastructure. Fiber provides the fastest speeds, both up and down. Fiber is more resilient than copper. Fiber is better for the environment, using less power than copper-based technologies. Fiber even increases economic development and raises property values where it is deployed.  So it is no surprise that communities across the country are trying to attract fiber deployments in their areas and the President has created a Broadband Opportunity Council to identify ways of removing barriers to new broadband deployment.  And of course, FCC Chairman Wheeler has set 25 Mbps as the new benchmark for broadband, noting that there is little competition at those high speeds except in places where fiber has been deployed.  (Verizon’s fiber network – which passes about 70% of the homes in our wireline footprint – provides competition to incumbent cable operators essentially everywhere that it has been deployed.)

That is why it is strange that some parties are asking the FCC to consider rules that, rather than encouraging the move to fiber, would divert investment dollars into the very legacy copper networks that they have already acknowledged cannot provide real competition for cable at the higher speeds.  Make no mistake, rules that force companies to invest in copper networks, even where they are already deploying new fiber networks, would significantly delay the fiber future.

Specifically, some parties are asking the FCC to adopt rules to address “de facto copper retirement,” a made-up problem based on the unfounded claim that copper networks are being allowed to deteriorate to the point of not being usable.  Despite some cherry-picked anecdotes provided by advocates with a vested interest in having us spend more money on two parallel wireline networks, the objective performance data makes it clear that there simply is not a problem.  Here’s what the data show:  our trouble rate for customers still served by copper – a measurement of the number of “troubles” per 100 access lines, and likely the best indicator of network reliability – has steadily declined since 2011 to just over two troubles per 100 lines.  This is well below the benchmark generally set by states that engage in service-quality regulation.

Of course, everyone knows that copper networks, by their nature, have more “trouble” than fiber.  For example, there is no denying that troubles on copper increase when it rains – that has always been true.  Copper is susceptible to service issues when it gets wet.  This is why we have to use pressurized air to try to keep the copper cables dry (if you’ve ever wondered what those shiny, silver nitrogen canisters on the streets of New York City are for, now you know).  Unlike copper, fiber is immune to the effects of moisture and does not require pressurized cables – yet another reason to encourage a rapid transition to fiber.

The FCC and other policy makers rightly recognize that only new fiber deployments can improve the quality and range of services available to consumers, while also accelerating competition at the highest broadband speeds. Creating new rules that would divert investment from fiber to keep redundant copper networks would be a major step backwards for consumers and competition.

David Young has an engineering background, which enables him to develop positions on emerging public policy issues and asses key technology and communications industry trends. Prior to 2000, he spent six years working in Verizon’s Research and Development (R&D) group on many advanced technologies including VoIP, data network architectures, and audio, video and image compression. He has been awarded ten U.S. government patents for his R&D work. David is a member of the IEEE and IEEE Communications Society.