The great promise of “cheap, unlimited connectivity” via fiber-optic cables.
In South Korea, Sweden, and many other Asian and northern European countries, enormous amounts of data travel through fiber directly into homes, providing limitless communications capacity. In this comprehensive account, Crawford (Harvard Law School; Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, 2013), a former science and technology adviser for Barack Obama, argues that, lacking fiber-to-the-home connections, most Americans “suffer from totally inadequate, horribly expensive connectivity that cuts whole populations off from opportunity, adequate health care, and a decent education, and thwarts the development of new businesses.” In the United States, fiber connects cities but stops short of entering neighborhoods. Instead, information comes into 84 percent of homes through far more limited copper wire. That is like traveling through a 2-inch-wide pipe as opposed to the 15-mile-wide river afforded by fiber. Drawing on five years of research and interviews in cities from Stockholm to Santa Monica and Chattanooga, Crawford describes how fiber is made, its ability to encode information on pulses of light, and why “very-high-capacity wireless connections—5G—require fiber to run deep into neighborhoods and buildings.” An unabashed booster of fiber to the home, she details the impacts of so-called “last-mile fiber connectivity” (China is installing some 20,000 such connections daily), including greatly improved opportunities for everything from business, learning, and medical care to urban problem-solving. Fiber’s huge broadband capacity makes possible a remarkable, reliable virtual presence. “Fiber plus advanced wireless capability is as central to the next phase of human existence as electricity was a hundred years ago,” writes the author. At present, unregulated cable and phone monopolies control expensive into-the-home connections, with no incentive to upgrade to fiber. If the benefits of fiber connectivity are to reach beyond urban, affluent areas into rural and poor households, it will require local leadership and new federal policies. Essential reading for digital policymakers—and citizens seeking change in this arena.