What the New York Times got right (and wrong) about fiber

By: David Young

Earlier this week, the New York Times had a story about the benefits of fiber, entitled “For the Tech-Savvy With a Need for Speed, a Limited Choice of Towns With Fiber.” The article correctly identifies the superiority of all-fiber networks over older copper-based technologies, as demonstrated by an accompanying graphic from Ookla showing that, nationwide, Verizon FiOS is providing the fastest connections and that 8 of the top 10 states are states where FiOS has been deployed.

In fact, as the article notes, deploying a fiber network is so important that encouraging it has been a longstanding policy goal at the national level, and even some local governments are willing to spend tax-payer dollars to build these networks themselves.  These communities recognize that, as Heather Gold, President of the Fiber to the Home Council is quoted as saying, “If they want to attract people who are providing the jobs of the future, they have to offer fiber.”

Fortunately, for thousands of towns – and major metropolitan areas, such as New York and Washington, D.C. – throughout Verizon’s footprint, and for millions of our landline customers, the transition to fiber is already well underway. Fiber-based services from Verizon are available to more than 16 million homes, and soon, about 70 percent of our footprint will be fiberized.  In contrast, fewer than 1 million (about 6%) of the homes in those areas are still getting service over copper lines.  While that small percentage (and shrinking every day) is on the copper network, keeping that network up and running still generates 100 percent of its costs (or more, considering the number of parts that were discontinued decades ago and can only be found on Ebay).  There are also hidden costs, such as environmental impacts, given that it takes much more power to run the copper network than a fiber network.

Unfortunately, there are some who for a variety of reasons are trying to put the brakes on fiber upgrades, and by extension, fiber deployment. They think that the old copper networks should be kept indefinitely.  Needless to say, no existing telephone company will be able to make the investment necessary to build a new fiber network if it is forced to keep the old, redundant, and costly copper network running, too.

Policymakers at all levels of government must recognize that the upgrade from copper to fiber provides significant benefits for consumers and for the communities where this takes place.  They should focus on the tremendous advantages that come from replacing limited capacity copper networks with future-proof fiber optic networks.  There will always be some people who don’t want to see any change and will ask policymakers to block it. The social benefits of a transition to fiber must outweigh the preference that a few holdouts might have for a more familiar technology. Policymakers must be courageous and enable the upgrade to fiber to proceed.  Getting the fiber networks that are critical for the future of their communities will not happen as long as a small minority of residents are clinging to the copper networks of the past.

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.