I’m inspired watching restauranteurs creatively adapt to the new world, and appreciate what their adaptation brings to the American streetscape. The flourishing of outdoor shared spaces re-imagine the balance of space for people, cars and buildings here in U.S streets.
Shared spaces are one ingredient of the slow streets movement. Hopefully, the entire slow streets movement remains cemented in our thinking about placemaking. Slow streets represent a much needed victory over the traffic engineers who since post-WWII worked to optimize our nation’s places for the storage and unencumbered movement of motor vehicles – at the expense of living, livable streets.
But I hope the structures and spaces created by our restauranteurs (and other creative small business owners), intended to be temporary, somehow become a permanent part of our way of life. They are the parklet-like outdoor seating booths taking over parking spaces throughout some of our cities. They sit somewhere between the semi-permanence of parklets and the ephemera of (Park)ing Day installations. But new entrants since then suggest such shared spaces are moving towards permanence.
They seem to cluster and multiply. Like street truck plazas, but lining whole streets. Very cool. They seem to be evolving, with hundreds of expressions on public display and frequent updates made by their makers, learning from each other, thinking of new ways to enhance them. It’s been two months since Hayden Manseau’s excellent piece on Shared Spaces, and in that short time frame the number and quality of these fixtures have compounded.
Along Valencia, in S.F., whole blocks transform into temporary woonerfs on some days and nights of the week. The result is magic, combining the electric atmosphere of a living street together with the pedestrian’s functional equivalent of a boulevard. It’s easy to speed up, slow down, and get around when we’re not relegated to the street’s margin. Something like the 16th Street Mall in Denver except with 3x the density of restaurants.
While such outdoor seating arrangements have been commonplace for centuries in other parts of the world, the hundreds now popping up throughout S.F. illustrate the American spirit of experimentation and self-expression. While they all serve more or less the same purpose, each has its own unique look and feel.
Most are hacked together weekend projects with basic lumber and some love. But even with a $10 thing of backyard string lights, these bring surprising warmth and character to the street.
Some look like physical extensions of the parent restaurant’s interior theme… leather couches and lamps and fiddle leaf figs and even area rugs right there in the street.
Others look like full-on visions of the future of restaurants, Lebbeus Woods-like reconfigurations of the entire idea of dining in a place.
Each contributes to the street, and to the forgotten sense of place we here in America forgot sometime after WWII. They take Kunstler’s “active permeable membrane” to all new levels here in the U.S.
Of course, they’re not just for restaurants and eating. Walking around S.F. almost daily, I’ve seen:
Haircuts – like 50’s style perm machines and barber chairs and rinse basins
Workouts – people doing squats, bootcamps, and all kinds of crazy gym things right out in the street – amazing
Waiting rooms – app delivery drivers waiting for orders in comfort rather than standing in the middle of the sidewalk or waiting in a car
Voting Booths 🇺🇸
Making Pottery! With actual pottery wheels
Mini eSports tournaments
Good old fashioned seating, a new wave of parklets
And they don’t just serve the host business. These fixtures calm motor traffic, foster commerce, and create opportunities of gathering outdoors in a time where we need to remember we are not alone.
Shared spaces represent a big step forward for our nation’s places, a step I believe we should fight to keep long after this pandemic becomes a distant memory. Examples and reminders of crisis driving innovation.
With our massive strides in 3d printing, together with resourceful ingenuity of our small business owners, these shared spaces could become a new market with vendors, trade shows, a renaissance in local craft & manufacturing, and more.
Let’s hope they become a permanent addition to the American streetscape, and may be our time’s equivalent of the plazas and piazzas where we have the conversations we need to have in order to move forward.
If you live almost anywhere in the U.S., don’t expect to just “go remote” smoothly as your company is likely about to mandate you do. While remote work seems to be a magic bullet so far, that’s because less than 1% of us are doing it, and today at the dawn of the U.S. outbreak we already got brief glimpses of what to expect when 2, 5, 10% of the U.S. economy simultaneously goes remote.
The problem is capacity required for remote work tools versus the physics of the dominant medium of U.S. internet connections: copper.
Why is our internet made of mostly copper? It’s because a handful of telephone and cable companies – the copper oligopoly – serve the vast majority of American internet subscribers. Just one problem: copper is awful at capacity. Advertised speeds can be faked right up to the legal limits surrounding truth in advertising, using lame hardware hacks and fancy footwork like Docsis. But you can’t fake the physics of capacity. Bandwidth-intensive services, like Zoom for team meetings and Netflix for chilling, gobble up capacity.
Lots of people are going to be trying to Zoom to work in the coming weeks. Because of that, our internet infrastructure is about to run up against the laws of physics. It will test our patience, and maybe our entire economy in the process.
Our dilemma isn’t unique to the internet. It’s one example from a well-known family of problems, the tragedy of the commons:
The tragedy of the commons is a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling the shared resource through their collective action.
Unlike most tragedies of the commons involving physical resources, where resource consumption is tangible, the digital version of this problem is largely invisible, knowable only by the symptoms of overwhelmed networks.
Remote work is great until everyone is doing it, or at least trying to do it. The sharp increase in video calls alone will overwhelm most incumbent last-mile networks at the local level in the U.S. And what will happen when most American universities run each day’s courses online?
Signs are already beginning to emerge. Calls aren’t going through. Connections are dropping out of the blue. Frequent lag and buffering. Service outages. Your favorite site seems slower than normal. Your super important Zoom team assembly can’t even right now.
Even stranger, many of the SaaS tools you rely on will seem suddenly buggy in unexpected ways. That’s because modern software as a service interacts constantly with the internet. While they may be relatively low bandwidth compared to heavy video, their requests to and from your client machine will be competing for the same amount of capacity they had available last week, with hundreds or even thousands of times the concurrent traffic next week.
For SaaS builders, suddenly, strange bugs that never existed before will begin to crop up in your products, and these bugs cannot be easily squashed, because they live just beyond the reach of your software engineers, out in the physical network. The only answer is carefully attending to graceful degradation.
None of this would be a problem, of course, if we had fiber to the premises throughout the U.S. But we don’t. Not even close. Less than 10% of the U.S. has what the FCC allows to be called fiber. Even many incumbent “fiber” customers are in for a bitter shock: during this crisis, they’ll learn what they’ve really been paying for: “fiber-esque” – a connection that isn’t fully fiber, but is marketed as gigabit speed, at a premium price, and is only as good as the weakest link out to the internet.
Video conferencing services like Zoom work like magic most of the time, in part because they have insanely talented engineers over there, and in part because there’s usually abundant bandwidth available to handle all simultaneous calls.
And yet Zoom could have the best engineers and the best systems on the planet, and your company could be among the thousands of organizations who are about to insist on remote video meetings, and not one bit of this matters if your Comcast connection – which is almost entirely copper – melts in the presence of the thousands of concurrent video calls going on all around you.
What’s going on? You might not think about it, but when you Zoom to remote work, you’re doing the digital equivalent of driving a huge, bandwidth-guzzling S.U.V. down what is almost certainly the digital equivalent of a two lane gravel road on your way to your team meetings. Good for you and your company. But what happens when all of your neighbors try Zooming, too? Less than 1% of the U.S. video conferences in daily work, and all of us already know the painful, stress-inducing symptoms of overburdened networks. What happens when 10% of our country’s workforce tries to video call during business hours? Who will you blame when your ISP makes you late for your remote work?
What about China?! They went remote…
Yes, China has been operating a remote-first, safety mode version of its economy for months now. That is possible, even at five times the population of the U.S., thanks to China’s extensive investment in fiber networks during the 2010’s. Now, even as most Chinese are quarantined at home, many aspects of modern Chinese life continue on thanks to reliable digital services. That smoothness absolutely will not happen in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic.
China invested in real information infrastructure: the fiber-extensive transmission, along with the edge processing and storage required to run advanced digital services such as streaming video calls, remote health, and remote classrooms.
Because they invested in real information infrastructure, China’s internet will, for the most part, not confront the tragedy of the commons at today’s usage requirements (which continue growing exponentially).
The U.S. did not make such investment. Even though the internet started here, it evolved in the U.S. over telephone lines, and later cable. Then, we let the staggeringly powerful copper oligopoly cajole us into remaining complacent, milking the public for tens of billions of dollars of subsidy along the way.
Personal prediction: the U.S. economy is going to fall even further behind during the Corona wave. Will we ever catch up?
Viewed from the bright side, the Corona pandemic may provide opportunity to reboot our economy to be digital-first. American telecom marketing 💩 is finally about to be exposed. Watch as your “premium” 300mb/s “fiber”* connection shudders under the weight of its true nature. Get ready to ask for refunds. Better yet, switch to your local internet service provider, if you’re lucky enough to have one, since their network is likely better than the cable company you probably get internet through today.
Want more info on the real state of U.S. broadband?
Thank you for working to connect folks. You’re launching the greatest leap forward in the internet’s 50 year history, and will recast the incumbent structure of U.S. telecom over the next few years. Today’s widespread denial of this fact is a protective slathering of fear, uncertainty and doubt. Disruption can be unpleasant business for oligopolies.
Please make the most of your shot. Don’t become the world’s largest ISP by going direct-to-consumer. For the sake of Starlink’s shareholders, for Americans, and for our nation’s thousands of local ISPs:
Please offer Starlink as open access, wholesale backhaul for America’s local ISPs.
The Swedes, approaching 95% fiber-to-the-premises, yet half the population density of the U.S., showed us the best model: open access last kilometer, offered wholesale via neutral operator (WNO). ISPs compete to serve subscribers over shared infrastructure, all the way into the homes.
That model can and should become the default in the United States, available to local ISPs, where today the outmoded vertically-integrated operator model reigns supreme, shackling subscribers to outdated copper that pretends to be more capable than it really is.
Our copper oligopoly does what any rational cartel does to protect profits. They write state and local rules preventing threats like open access from spreading. They hoover up billions of public dollars each year, funneling proceeds into a combination of self-congratulating dividends and marketing campaigns designed to thoroughly suppress honest local ISPs. But they do not waste perfectly good cartel cashflow upgrading our nation’s information infrastructure.
They are too strong now for local ISPs to do anything about. They fight dirty against local ISPs, and in so doing keep tens of millions of us shackled to shoddy copper, inadvertently preventing our nation from joining the digital services era.
They are at the time of this writing too big to fail.
You – Gwynne, Elon, Starlink Leadership – could be the deciding factor between whether we in America remain stuck in the dark era, or if we, too, can enjoy the benefits of the coming Cambrian explosion of digital service innovations.
How? Bring open access to America. Offer Starlink wholesale, open access, delivered to subscribers through competitive local ISPs.
Even though it looks different from the direct-to-consumer model that works so well over at Tesla, you’re almost certainly already leaning this direction. You have some of the world’s top talent on team, no doubt you’ve already modeled all possible approaches. So you likely saw that wholesale neutral open access offers the path to global maximum ROI for you, the infrastructure owner. The accretive economics of multiple service providers competing to deliver price-discriminated digital services over your infrastructure, minus the outsourced cost structure of service delivery, maximizes the value of your asset.
But, just in case: here are three reasons to please be an open access, wholesale neutral operator in the U.S.
#1: It’s best for Starlink
You’ll generate more profit. It might take slightly longer than the near-instant retail gratification of turning on the one ISP to rule them all, but wholesale neutral open access offers the path to achieving global maximum ROI.
Just as important as maximizing profit is your culture and legacy. Like all Elon Musk companies, Starlink exemplifies definite optimism. You incite imaginations, and summon the full brilliance of smart people working hard within a culture of innovation. If you join the U.S. telecom oligopoly, or – more likely, given the devastating potency of Starlink’s tech and team – become their dank meme overlord, you’ll lose your innovative edge.
With Tesla, Boring Co, Hyperloop and every prior endeavor, you’ve shown that it’s possible to do exceedingly well financially by doing good in the world. As the world’s largest ISP, you’re just the new asshat to blame when WHY THE F*C&K WON’T THIS F&%ING WEBSITE LOAD — F&^K YOU STARLINK!!!! !
At least in the context of U.S. broadband, direct-to-consumer is both financially sub-optimal, and at odds with the ethos of all other Elon Musk endeavors.
#2: It’s best for American subscribers
Open access, wholesale Starlink offered via local ISPs helps all Americans.
Once you’re fully launched – 2022? – high speed broadband will be everywhere in America. With game-changing latency and speed, Starlink holds great potential to accelerate America’s entry into the digital services era. In Sweden, where they are already advancing into digital distributed healthcare, in which many forms of care are administered in-home, now that the information infrastructure is in place.
Digital services will save America hundreds of billions of dollars per year in healthcare and transportation costs, and profoundly enhance the quality of life for millions of Americans. Such digital services that cannot properly flow through copper, nor many of today’s fixed wireless networks. Most such services can easily flow through your global infrastructure.
As wholesale backhaul for local ISPs, local ISPs can upsell and cross-sell such digital services to subscribers. And you don’t put folks in the awkward place where they need to leave their local ISP – especially in remote America, often someone they hold long ties with, bonded by the ocean of uninhabited terrain separating their community from the rest of the world. Subscribers have someone local to talk to when things go wrong.
#3: It’s best for America’s Local ISPs, and the communities they serve
The potential reality just ahead is sobering for those who dare to look. The fate of the local ISP remains to be seen in the Starlink era of internet access. The amount of challenges local ISPs take on every day means most are unaware of the profound change you’re about to unleash. Of those aware, most I’ve spoken with at Ready.net seem in denial. A small but growing number are understandably worried that the end is near.
There are nearly 3,000 ISPs in the U.S. When they realize the eminent threat, when your shadow passes overhead, when adrenaline sharpens their eyes and their minds and they pause the hard work of keeping their community connected long enough to react, which question would you rather they ask?
“Is Starlink the end of my business?”
Sure, you could wipe most of them off the face of the earth, after they’ve worked for years or decades to get folks connected.
“How can I grow my business through Starlink to serve more subscribers?”
Or, you could give them a potent tool with which to compete against the cable incumbents.
By empowering local ISPs, you’ll help human-scale ISPs win their constant battle against the copper oligopoly. Local ISPs are the ones fighting mediocrity in telecom infrastructure. They’re the ones working to solve difficult problems, with limited resources. They’re the ones physically, socially, economically tied to their community. If you’re wholesale open access, you help them win. In turn, they’re your built-in salesforce and customer service, capable of thoroughly ensuring access for all.
You could empower thousands of small businesses, cooperatives, municipalities, and nonprofits who’ve worked for years to get folks ready for the digital services. Here are just a few examples among the nation’s thousands of local ISPs:
1. Aroostook Technologies, the fixed-wireless ISP in far northern Maine, a locally-owned IT business operating since before the internet was born. They’ve connected thousands of Mainers, but routinely turn away prospective customers due to physics constraints of their slice of spectrum within Maine’s heavily forested, hilly terrain. What if they could activate thousands more of their neighbors with always-on, any-line-of-sight via Starlink backhaul?
2. Innovators like Althea, working to bring new P2P models of access to life on the ground for community-owned networks. What if the creative problem-solvers of the WISP and mesh network communities could serve over your infrastructure, consuming it as a resource, as software startups today utilize AWS? You might enable the Cambrian explosion of all-new distributed digital services.
3. Our nation’s 800+ Rural Electric Cooperatives – the same unsung heroes who’ve worked to ensure continuous access to electricity for millions of rural Americans since the early 20th century. Now, many RECs offer broadband to their members, like United Electric (where my Ol’ Man worked for decades!), which now serves United Fiber to 11,000 subscribers and growing. They’re the reason you can get superior internet in my rural hometown Maryville, Missouri, than anything I can get living in San Francisco. There are over 100 RECs today with active fiber services, and many more in the works. RECs make exceptionalISPs, and offering internet service helps them serve their members. Some RECs who were looking to implement internet service are reluctant to proceed with their plans to deploy fiber, awaiting whether Starlink will potentially strand tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of their assets.
You’re about to massively upgrade the internet. Americans want to work with their local ISPs. Local ISPs can help you connect more folks and deliver more digital services. Please offer Starlink as wholesale backhaul to our nation’s thousands of local ISPs.
You’ll unleash the full potential of the internet in America, once and for all. Since we now live in the connected economy, at the dawn of the digital services era, that means open access Starlink unleashes the full potential of America.
By way of background, Ready.net helps local ISPs grow. There is extremely high demand for Starlink backhaul. We’d love to work with you to make that a reality.
With or without us. Please use your superpowers for good.
No matter what, thank you again for connecting folks.
Thank you Mike Faloon, Drew Clark, Darren Farnan, Zhuangyuan Fan, Deborah Simpier, Jess Masse, my parents Steve and Traci, my girlfriend Xueying, and cats Jackson and Franklin for contributing to this letter, as well as America’s thousands of local ISPs for keeping folks connected. #ThankYourLocalISP
Your local ISP is the only thing keeping you and your community adequately connected to the global economy. And they do it with one metaphorical hand tied behind the back, while blindfolded and barefoot.
Nonsense? Consider this: without competition from your local ISP, the incumbent provider whose slice of the telecom oligopoly’s territory covers your community would raise prices, reduce investment in already-inadequate infrastructure, directly harm your community in subtle ways, and, worst of all, prevent you and your community from accessing the coming wave of life-enhancing digital services.
Your local ISP quietly keeps order in your community, though you might not even know they exist. They are the Rangers on the border of your Shire, every day fighting copper monsters, safeguarding you from evils you know not.
Even if you don’t use their services – and statistically you almost certainly don’t, though maybe you should? – your local ISP’s willingness to work hard to serve your community is the only thing keeping your access to the internet reasonably good.
Your local ISP, which could be a local business, a Rural Electric Cooperative, a broadband coop, or even your town itself, is the caped hero saving your ass from the digital dark ages.
Today, there are just over 2,700 ISPs in America, up 20% from 5 years ago. That roughs out to one ISP for every 50,000 homes. But greater than half of connected American households use one of two cable companies for internet service at home. And more Americans than ever access the internet through outdated copper connections, legacies of the cable and landline phone era, owned and operated by a shrinking pool of giant companies.
Today, it’s easier than ever to start a local ISP. Equipment prices have fallen dramatically. Ingenious startups like Althea work to enable anyone to become an ISP. There’s even a thoughtful guide for starting your own ISP, emerging b2b solutions for small ISPs, powerful mapping tools for planning networks, and a flourishing community of WISPs (wireless internet service providers) working to connect folks using wireless technologies. Common is a personal favorite example here in the Bay Area. I expect they’ll be very big someday, and that their ascent will set a good example, and that they’ll keep incumbents on their toes wherever they decide to go.
Today, incumbent telecom ISPs hold the distinction of having the lowest Net Promoter Scores of any kind of business. Even lower than banks. Yet people still choose the incumbent, for many perfectly sensible reasons. Many do so because that is the only choice they know. Others do so out of desire to access television. Others still are lured away from local providers by introductory offers, even when the local ISP offers measurably better service, which is very often the case.
It’s a puzzle until you look closely at the subtle structural disadvantages designed to hold your local ISP down.
The internet is the largest thing we’ve ever created, and almost certainly the most transformative technology in the history of humankind. It turned 50 a few months ago. There is a digital transformation well underway in every industry thanks to the internet’s global connective tissue.
But there is a problem in America, one that will soon escalate into a full-scale crisis, as the sun rises on the digital services era. As we head in to 2020, Microsoft estimates that 160 million Americans still lack access to even the lowest acceptable quality of broadband.
It’s vital we ensure access for all. Because we now live in the connected economy. There is a new economic operating system, one that will enable remote work, distributed healthcare, immersive entertainment, rural prosperity, and many great outcomes enabled by digital services in ways I’m not creative enough to think up. But the next wave of digital service providers will.
The abysmal state of U.S. information infrastructure will grow very painfully obvious over the next few years, as life-enhancing digital services begin to thrive in today’s very small, very fortunate connected enclaves. Meanwhile, connected people and places will continue racing ahead.
Despite their colossal size and unprecedented power, there are many surprising structural reasons why large incumbent ISPs are not able to install America’s next-gen information infrastructure, even if they wanted to. Even if we assume they will. Even if we believe they already are. They aren’t. And they won’t. Because they can’t. And no amount of government subsidy will change that fact.
Only your local ISP, properly empowered, holds the key to connecting you and your community to the future. Together, local ISPs wielding the right tools can solve America’s emergent broadband crisis.
Local ISPs reading this: keep fighting the good fight. And thank you for keeping us connected. I’d also love to hear your experiences with keeping your community connected. Ping me anytime.
The case for open access fiber broadband infrastructure throughout the U.S.
What if the United States operated roads the way we currently operate the internet connection into our homes, schools, and businesses? Let’s imagine this for a moment. You love your house. You genuinely like most of your neighbors. You’re happy in your neighborhood. There is just one catch: your neighborhood roads are owned and operated by Ford Motor Company. They built your roads in 1972, and as your only choice of road provider they haven’t upgraded them in a while. Moreover, your roads permit exactly one car model: the glorious 1972 Pinto.
That was fine when you moved in. All of your neighbors also drive 1972 Pintos. Some of them foolishly settled for the basic sepia sedan. Others opted for the lime green hatchback, like you. “A bit more per month, but worth it,” you told yourself.
In the neighborhood next to yours, there are two roads in front of every house. Because of that, residents can choose between a 1972 Ford Pinto or a 1985 Chevy Nova.
“Must be nice,” you mutter.
On the east side of town, some neighborhoods have no road at all.
“Must be rough,” you sneer.
In the beginning, you never noticed your Pinto’s limitations. But as the years go on, you begin to feel more and more that people from outside your neighborhood seem to be racing ahead of you. Literally… you go 0–60mph in 11.3 seconds.
The salesperson assured you this beast would top out at 100mph, but you’ve done many speed tests over the years: no way this thing does more than 60, 65 tops, and that’s with no one else in it, with the radio off. And you swear every year it seems to be getting a little slower.
Yet despite its limitations, your tri-door blast from the past remains perfectly decent at some things. A quick trip to the store? That hatchback upgrade is still a miracle of engineering.
Other types of trips… not so much. Your teen secretly hates you every time she drives your jalopy to the local Fortnight party: she’s always late and the other players make fun of her! During frequent family trips, your family of 5, all packed in, completely overwhelms your lime-green lemon’s whopping 86 horsepower.
Worse, there are a growing number of places your Pinto simply can’t go, even if you want (or need) to visit those places. Those new offices with jobs, those next-generation amenities already built in other parts of the country? Off limits to your family. You stick to Pinto-friendly backroads.
Ford owns your neighborhood’s roads, so what are you going to do about it anyway? And just to ensure your neighborhood never takes its future into its own hands, Ford worked with your state’s lawmakers to outlaw spending public money to upgrade your neighborhood’s 1972 Pinto-only dirt roads. They convinced your town council that things here are just fine. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” they said.
Besides, what business does a town have meddling in the affairs of road service providers?
Meanwhile, in a town far, far away, a different kind of neighborhood road lets people choose any form of transport they want. Whatever suits their need, their budget, their taste: Teslas. Bird scooters. Boosted boards. That fantastically heinous-looking Wheel thing. And choices even more exotic… Is that the new 5G hovercar?! Some residents even have one ofeach.
Your neighborhood makes you drive a 1972 Pinto. You chose your neighborhood… so you chose your 1972 Pinto. Your family depends on your lime-green machine. When it works, it gets around okay. It gets you from your house to your job. To your kid’s school. To the hospital.
You shake off the nagging sense that your life is, in subtle yet increasingly consequential ways, trapped in an especially regrettable hatchback from 1972.
Your family packs into the Pinto. Sunday road trip. Let’s putter somewhere new. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” cuts in and out over AM radio. You wish they still made 8 tracks.
Feeling the chorus, you upshift to fourth and final gear. The dashboard rattles as the speedometer nearly breaks at 60. Your teen rolls down her window, watching as the world passes by.
↑ Thankfully, this analogy is absurd. America was imagined and built to run on freedom of choice. With rare exception, we built our nation’s pathways through public investment, to offer rich choice among transportation modes, makes, and models.
So why is our internet infrastructure and access operated in this dystopian setup?
How We Got Here
As we did for our roads, we the public invested in much of the internet’s equivalents of highways and major streets.
But when it came to the internet’s equivalent of neighborhood roads — the connections into our homes — we took a wrong turn. We asked the telephone and cable companies (the equivalent of asking private car makers) to build and operate “the last mile.”
Where these providers chose to build, they did so on their own terms: primarily dirt road equivalents, with an approach that only supports the equivalent of owning one model of car at a time. The FCC estimates that 19 million Americans still lack access to fixed broadband at threshold speeds, and 60% of subscribers have a single choice of provider. They decide how much we pay, how long we wait on hold to resolve problems, and whether our businesses can be competitive. To protect their interests, they also prevent us from switching to other “road” providers. Doing so incurs a fine, and confronting the dystopian reality that we’ll need to wait at home starting from Tuesday at 10am and sometime next leap year for someone to come change out the driveway equivalent.
In order to ensure the continued economic output and wellbeing of our nation’s communities — in order to connect to our future — we must make open access fiber-optic infrastructure the defining infrastructure investment of our time.
Fiber-optic infrastructure is our century’s equivalent of the roads, electric grids, and water systems that defined our nation’s leaps forward.
Every individual and connected device in the U.S. should be able to access the internet — the global brain — on neutral terms, with true equality of connection.
We have a cruel and widening homework gap, a growing workforce skills gap, and a society that’s becoming more unequal and less in touch with the rest of the world each day. The ability to participate in an increasingly digital economy, and to better direct precious resources, hinges on ensuring access for all. Our success as a 21st century nation depends on harnessing everyone’s potential — not leaving millions unable to participate.
To ensure our nation remains competitive with the rest of the world, to ensure access to the global brain, to each other, and to the future of many services — ranging from healthcare to entertainment and things we haven’t yet begun to imagine — we must remember: our communities are kinds of macro-organisms we co-create. Just like our individual selves, our communities must first have proper physical central nervous systems (fiber optics) upon which we can build proper remote senses (wireless).
We must take our future in our own hands. We must invest in deep fiber-optic infrastructure, and operate it as open access from end to end. This critical change to the status quo will save us money, supercharge our economies, and improve quality of life for everyone.
1. Fiber is the foundation
Fiber infrastructure is the essential replacement to copper wire or coaxial cable, and is the prerequisite to make use of next-era wireless applications. The way we use the internet today — and the way we want to use it in the future — demands future-enabled infrastructure. Carrying information at nearly the speed of light, with many orders of magnitude greater capacity than the next-best technologies, fiber is the only acceptable foundation.
As Harvard Professor Susan Crawford illustrates in her must-read new book, Fiber, the difference between copper and the upgrade to fiber is the difference between a “trickling garden hose” and a “15 mile wide river.” What we can accomplish with fiber as a foundation is practically limitless.
Consider the awe-inspiring possibilities for advanced telemedicine service, beyond the basics of video calls with care provider. The distributed future of healthcare delivery requires vast amounts of data streaming, both ways, over a connection that cannot be affected by conditions like solar flares and concrete walls.
Exciting new wireless applications such as 5G also require fiber network infrastructure. Fiber is paradoxically the critical underpinning to connect to our wireless future. Wireless signals are only wireless until they hit the closest antenna and run on wires for the rest of the trip. Without better wires, all our wireless devices will be too congested.
2. Open access is the operating model
American-style market competition can extend into the household for internet-based services, just as our roads permit a wide variety of vehicle types. Someone with a great idea, or a company with a history of providing great customer service, can compete without needing to build an entire network, or offer a complete bundle of services. The result would be more affordable and better internet connections for customers.
Open access networks in every community, operated by neutral actors like the local governments that built our streets, or rural co-ops that brought electricity and telephone service to the farm, will maintain a naturally neutral internet, and are crucial to unlock the full force of fiber-optic connectivity. Companies will succeed on their own merit rather than having the right connection to a cable company or other corporate giant.
Even 5G would be just another Ford-owned road if we rely on providers to each build their own networks to connect the small cells.
Contrary to what incumbents would have us believe, open access fiber enables our private sector. Revisiting the road analogy, we did not expect UPS and FedEx to build and maintain their own roads. By using shared roads, both deliver better service at lower prices. The open access approach empowers new and existing service providers by removing the expectation that they must invest their own capital into building the infrastructure required to deliver services.
In addition, lower barriers to entry encourage new service innovations. When our nation’s places have internet connections on par with the intranet inside the walls of state-of-the-art institutions, new possibilities begin to unlock: smart cities; efficient, precision agriculture; responsive, resilient infrastructure. Especially exciting: the potential to deliver healthcare to patients everywhere.
Telehealth already brings previously impossible value to parts of the world where fiber is nearly ubiquitous. Imagine distributed outpatient acute post-op care: a bed equipped with many of the same gadgets as a bed inside a research hospital, with uninterrupted connection to Doctors. How much could we could save in national healthcare — tens of billions of dollars per month? More importantly, how much better is the experience for patients and their families receiving weeks or months of care delivered to their homes?
The true open access fiber revolution is already underway and Sweden is leading the way. The same commitment to open innovation helped create great world-changing digital companies: Skype, Spotify, and Klarna, to name a few. We have the power to drive the same transformation here in the U.S.
Our allies in Sweden have worked to light-up the majority of their country with open access fiber, at half the population density of the US, almost entirely through market competition over shared infrastructure. Just like we did with our roads. The quality and variety of services, and the lower prices on open access fiber networks, connect Swedes to their future.
Here in the U.S., we’re at a fork in the road. Our current closed copper path protects old-order incumbents, but precludes future growth and possibility. We can’t advance with the rest of the world as it moves to 5G and beyond. In some ways, we’re building new cars without building roads capable of supporting them.
The other path is made of open access fiber. It connects our people and our devices to a future with clear and complete access to information, at nearly the speed of light, with virtually limitless capacity for new life-enhancing innovations. It also offers incumbents a much-needed gateway to these new frontiers.
Thank you to everyone already in the fight to better connect us all. Thank you to those who’ve helped me begin to understand the magnitude of this largely invisible challenge facing our nation, and better ways to connect. Thank you to those who read and helped shape this piece: Björn Wannman & Isak Finér at COS, Deb Socia of Next Century Cities, Chris Mitchell of ILSR, Eva Arevuo & the all star Neighborly team.)