NWCitizen is reprinting the following article with the permission and generosity of Leslie Shankman, the author, and Whatcom Watch, the original publisher. It is one of the most comprehensive and comprehensible descriptions of cable vs. wireless vs. fiber we have seen. Originally published in July 2020, it bears repeating and is worth your time to read.
This article is based on an ongoing conversation with Jon Humphrey, who has been a Bellingham resident for 10 years. Jon built his first computer when he was 12, and has been deeply involved in technology ever since. Holding a degree in Music Production/Technology from the prestigious Hartt School, Jon also has decades of professional IT experience ranging from software development, to component-level hardware repair, networking, expertise in all major operating systems, dozens of applications and much more. For Jon, technology is a lifestyle, not just a job.
Jon is generous in sharing his expertise and seems to be motivated by a sense of justice in working to see that the best of technology benefits society in general, and Bellingham specifically.
I write this as a neophyte trying to gain enough understanding to make informed decisions and I share information and explanations from Jon along with supplemental research to bring those who are also technologically uninformed along with me in learning. It is important to understand some basics about the underlying operational considerations that bring us the technology we rely on. When it remains a mystery, we get what we get from the companies and forces that develop these systems. When we know some basics, we are empowered to become involved in asking for, and expecting, products that meet our needs.
In my pursuit for understanding, I learned that apples, oranges, and pears are not the same thing. Huh? What I mean is, I learned that the uninitiated often jumble the basic concepts that stand behind the delivery of our internet and devices.
Simply put, we are dealing with wired and wireless connections. For wired connections, copper or glass (known as fiber optics) can be used. Fiber can also be made with a type of plastic. Electrical impulses are transmitted through copper to carry information while fiber optics transmit light loaded with data.
Copper cabling, known as telephone cabling, was initially installed in Boston in 1877 to make the first phone connection. Coaxial cable (pure copper or copper-coated wire surrounded by insulation with an aluminum covering used to transmit television, telephone, and data signals) came into use in 1880, and was originally intended for one-way communication. It is the bedrock of most of our cable television systems. (1)
Copper delivers the internet either by DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) or via copper coaxial cable. DSL is provided by phone companies like AT&T and CenturyLink and is often bundled with home phone service. It is not as fast as coaxial cable or fiber internet. However, it is usually less expensive. In rural areas, DSL is often the only wired internet option. While DSL users technically get their own “dedicated” connection, DSL wiring suffers from high degradation and there is signal loss over distance. (2) Coaxial copper cable internet reaches your home through the same coaxial cables that your TV likely uses.
Fiber and copper cabling options are truly apples and oranges (and let’s call DSL tangerines) that need to be understood in terms of their quality, capacity, and performance.
Coaxial was originally used to carry data one-way, via electrical impulses, to deliver information to telephones and TVs. Information would travel in one direction, and, when it was done, the cable would be free so information could then travel back. Think download and upload.
As the internet came into common usage in the early 90s, it became important to send outgoing information at the same time, as well. With this, the market called for multiple services transmitting information two ways simultaneously. To accommodate this, telecoms digitized their services and split them into different bands on the same copper wires. Like different radio stations, only so many can be carried on the wire or they interfere with each other. Digitalizing the data also freed up wireless bandwidth that broadcast TV stations were using. Now, one bandwidth could carry your TV show or phone call while another your internet data.
There are inherent limitations with using electrical signals through copper and this two-way use exacerbated them. The signal degrades over distance, the bandwidth is limited, and multiple users drawing on the signal dilutes the speed and quality of connection. So, copper only has the capacity for limited performance and cannot meet increasing demands for better performance.
Speed and Performance Variables
DSL and coaxial cable have different capacities for speed. Megabits per second (Mbps) are generally used to describe the speed of an internet connection. Megabytes (MB) refer to the size of a file or storage space. (3/4)
It is important to realize that telecoms still advertise in megabits even though most of the data being moved is measured in kilobytes, megabytes, and more often now, gigabytes. Many are starting to work with terabytes.
Nielsen’s law (5) of internet bandwidth assures us that our requirements and demands will keep going up, so we need connections that keep improving as well. Requirements for HD (high definition) services, so needed in educational and other applications, often define their requirements in megabytes per second — MBps. Notice the capital B. Mbps and MBps look almost identical. Since the public, in general, does not know these terms, the packaging of tiered-priced services with higher Mbps sound impressive to the consumer. But the actual need for megabyte capacity is not being met.
DSL is the least satisfactory with download speeds usually in the 5–35 Mbps range and upload speeds in the 1–10 Mbps range. The performance of DSL connections fades very quickly, and whatever speed you are quoted is a best-case scenario that will almost never be experienced consistently.
For coaxial cable connections, the tiered-price packages offer different capacities. There are purported “low-income” packages to make existing cable technology available to the disadvantaged, but the signal capacity in and out is so low at 15 Mbps in and 2 Mbps out for Comcast and 18 Mbps in and 3 Mbps out for CenturyLink that these packages are not truly viable for reliable usage. And, on its low-income package, CenturyLink offers phone or internet, but not both. This is frustrating and isolating anytime, but with the Covid-19 virus currently requiring schooling and medical appointments via the internet, the lack of delivery creates an economic digital divide.
Higher performance cable options cost more and can range from 10–500 Mbps for downloading, while upload speeds are 5–50 Mbps, with companies like Comcast capping the upload speed of their connections at only 10 Mbps.
Some companies have started packaging greater levels of service using the term “Gig Internet.” This can be misleading as fiber delivers speeds of 1,000 Mbps, or 1 Gig, consistently and in both directions, so the term Gig implies speed and an equivalency with fiber capabilities. While we are stuck with these marketing games, cities with public fiber networks, like Chattanooga, Tenn., are offering up to 10,000 Mbps, 10 Gig, fiber.
Although this “Gig Internet” service touts 1 Gig of download speed, the upload speed is only 35 Mbps. The service also requires special equipment and is not available everywhere. The fine print in an AT&T ad tells the story: “Download Max 940 Mbps, Speeds Vary, Not Guaranteed, Based on Network Availability, See Details.” (6/7/8) This is also true of CenturyLink. Notice their advertisements say, “speeds up to 1 Gigabit.” They have had to apologize to customers in Seattle for misleading them on the availability of their 1 Gig service. (9) Most CenturyLink customers cannot get this service.
With coaxial cable, the cable used by Comcast, the purchased capacity will rarely be the real-time experience as cable users share connections at neighborhood HUBs. Speeds can dip sharply at peak times, such as after work when half the neighborhood is using Netflix.
Zoom requires 3 Mbps of upload consistently to work well. (10) When even “high-end” Comcast connections are shared, they are not able to support quality Zoom performance. In one test, a 100 Mbps/10Mbps $100 a month Comcast connection performed at 16 Mbps down and 3 up. So, if mom is using Zoom for work and her son tries to take his driver’s ed course online, they can expect poor quality at best, or even failed connections. This scenario was reported to Jon by a teacher who has a 16-year-old son and pays for the most expensive Comcast package. Mother and son have to share their connection throughout the day and schedule when they use it.
Also, the loss of net neutrality in most of the nation adds in the factor that the traffic going over these connections is low priority and is slowed down. Washington elected to uphold net neutrality, a state’s right that was won in a court case several years ago, but there is no effective policing of this right so data speeds can still vary based on priority given. (11)
With fiber optics, data is carried by light through many small fibers of glass. The data travels at the speed of light, and, since the signal does not degrade with distance from the server, the speeds that are advertised are delivered. Fiber internet download speeds can be anywhere from 50-10,000 Mbps (1,000 Mbps equals 1 Gigabit). But, unlike copper, fiber offers “symmetrical” service consistently — meaning the bandwidth does not need to be split for in and out as happens with copper — so the upload happens at the same high speed.
Technically, electricity travels at the speed of light, too. But copper carrying electric signals experiences latency (time delay), signal loss, jitter, and the need for amplification to offset loss. Copper connections have to be amplified about 10 times more often than fiber. While a signal carried through fiber does technically degrade, it requires less amplification, and, when the signal is repeated, it is repeated perfectly. So, fiber offers a faster more stable internet connection.
With copper, when the signal is repeated, there are usually artifacts. An artifact is any undesired or unintended alteration in data and can be caused by factors such as noise, packet loss, jitter in the periodicity of the signal, or heat. This leads to errors in the data, which are either corrected using a process called error-correction or the data must be re-sent, starting the whole show over again for that packet. This also means the data comes in out of order and must be reassembled, adding yet another performance problem to copper-based services.
Fiber cabling can be expected to last up to 100 years, rather than the 30 or so years for copper. When copper cabling degrades or needs to be upgraded, it needs to be replaced. Fiber cables do not need to be replaced (unless damaged or not maintained). Once installed, they are upgraded by changing the equipment that creates the electronic light pulses.
For instance, Mt. Vernon, Wash., enjoys a comprehensive fiber-optic system and can currently run 8 Wavelengths per strand of fiber. You can think of these wavelengths as different colors of light. New technology allows for 32 wavelengths per strand, and, should the city feel the need for increased capacity, the upgrade would come by replacing the signaling equipment.
The buildout of a fiber system in Mt. Vernon started when they received a $125,000 grant that was used to run fiber into local businesses. That install quickly paid for itself, prompting city officials to go after the almost 0 percent interest loans that are available for this development. They had seen that expanding the network was not a risk and could pay for itself. (12)
Actually, as outlined in a chapter entitled Community Stories in the book “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution — and Why America Might Miss It” by Susan Crawford, a professor at Harvard Law School, some rural areas such as Renville and Sibley counties in Minnesota are surpassing urban areas in establishing robust fiber systems. These areas can often obtain good grants for installation. And, the telecoms usually do not push back as hard against installation because their systems are not as viable in these areas. Fiber is important for the agricultural industry as it quantum jumps the ability to run the machines and cycles of care, such as watering, that are necessary for efficient crop production. (13/14)
Fiber and Innovation
In addition, Crawford’s book illustrates how fiber optics are being used to enhance communication and growth in many fields. She discusses many exciting usage scenarios in education, health, economic and community development. As the United States lags way behind many countries that have robust fiber networks, we do not truly understand the potential for how being connected via a lightning fast, reliable global brain could enhance the ways we live and work, truly advancing human evolution. It is not only data that can be shared this way, but experiences as well.
A specific example shared in Crawford’s book highlights the way learning is conducted at a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) high school in the fully fibered city of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The school collaborates with the University of Southern California, and the professors there put their advanced digital video microscopes under the students’ control. Students conduct their own experiments and can see the beauty and complexity of the microworld on a huge screen. They can simultaneously ask questions of the university professors who standby on an adjacent screen.
Another example includes children sick with cancer being able to join their classes via small robots in the classroom that they control. Using the robot’s eyes and ears, they are “in” their classroom. Other students interact with the robot, thereby allowing the sick child some continued social contact and learning. The potential for creative and economic growth is endless. (15)
Note that, to support this kind of technology, 15.8 Mbps to 41 Mbps Up per second are needed. Since Comcast and most CenturyLink connections are capped at or below 10 Mbps Up, this makes them totally ineffectual for modern work and education.
Fiber Is Backbone of Internet
It is fascinating to realize that fiber is the backbone of the internet. A sprawling and complex network of fiber transmits data over long distances between cities, countries, and continents. It is amazing to see the maps of extensive bundled fiber lines covering the ocean floors connecting countries all over the world. (16)
So, there is a structural “backbone” of fiber, but it is necessary to connect users to this backbone. Thus, even with the lowly DSL connection, data actually travels through fiber for most of its journey along the internet backbone. However, in those last miles to your house or business, the data slows down considerably. This adds what is called “bottleneck.”
The internet services sold from providers to consumers are called “last mile” technologies, and the majority of U.S. households and businesses only have the option of “last mile” DSL or copper-coaxial services. Most of the United States lives with this reality, as fiber to the home has not been prioritized by the telecom companies. (17) This, even though billions of dollars were charged to consumers in miscellaneous telecom fees over the last two decades that were meant to create a Fiber to the Home (FTTH) network. (For background on this, see the May 2020 issue of Whatcom Watch.)
So, if we think of fiber and copper cabling options as “apples” and “oranges,” we now need to consider the third “fruit.” Let us call the wireless movement of data “pears.” These are impulses that travel via electromagnetic signals in different frequency bands through the atmosphere. For wireless transmission, think of a baseball game — you need someone to throw the ball and someone to catch it — you need those magical airborne pulses to launch from something and be received by something.
And we can extend the analogy by realizing that, just as in a baseball game, sometimes the ball is dropped or hits the ground or a side wall and is out of play. When the ball is dropped, it is called “packet loss.” The data, therefore, comes in out of order and must be fixed and reassembled. This happens much more often with wireless equipment than with fiber, adding even more latency (time delay). Also, with wireless data, the ball can be snagged much more easily by the opposing team — in internet terms, that is a security breach. So, outside factors can affect wireless signals.
Wireless technology has been developed in earnest since the 90s with successive generations each delivering more capacity to support the conveniences we have come to see as part of life — such as video conferencing, sharing files, gaming, streaming movies and music, and remote operation of household devices. Currently, the telecom industry is in the midst of launching the fifth generation of wireless technology, 5G, around the world.
Because 5G works with shorter pulsed waves that do not travel as far, an infrastructure of 800,000-one million small cell boxes (in the United States) every 500 feet or so, and up to 20,000 satellites (globally) above are required to establish a viable working 5G wireless network. The idea for 5G, as an add-on to 4G, is that additional frequencies of bandwidth can be used to connect things that will work together. In reality, what 5G aims for can be accomplished with 4G wireless and/or with fiber. Most of the time, 5G will default to 4G bandwidth unless you are very close to the small cells.
The marketing push that compares 5G speeds to fiber speeds do not represent real performance. In a study done in stadiums that have been equipped with 5G, it was found that unless the device looking for a signal (usually your phone) had a direct line of sight to an emitter, the phone fell back to operating on 4G. This is because your body, if turned away from the emitter, blocks the signal, as do other objects that might be in the way. The fiber-range speeds advertised for 5G are based on standing up close to an emitter and single use, i.e. no other device vying for that signal. (18) Like the copper connections discussed above, wireless is a shared bandwidth technology as well, and you will likely only see high performance in perfect conditions.
A crucially important thing to realize is the power usage required for wireless access networks. A report from the University of Melbourne expected wireless power usage in 2015 to be 43 terawatts annually nationwide, compared to 9.2 terawatt-hours in 2012. This represents an increase in carbon footprint from 6 megatons of CO2 in 2012, up to 30 megatons of CO2 in 2015, which is the equivalent of an additional 4.9 million cars on the road. With 5G, the annual expected power usage is estimated to increase to at least 60 terawatts. As we gain awareness and impetus to switch to renewable energy resources, do we really want to be using more power in this way? The increased power usage also contributes to the climate’s rising temperature. (19/20/21)
Safety of 5G
Let us go back to the baseball analogy so we have a picture. We can imagine ourselves in the stadium, and, with 5G, it is no longer a controlled game. Rather, balls are coming from every direction, thrust out to scores of catchers poised to receive a ball, creating the impetus for the next move. Inconveniently, we and trees and birds and bugs, house walls and building structures, and even rain, can degrade the 5G wireless pulsed signal.
Correspondingly, thousands of scientific studies done in the last two decades have established that the currently existing 3 and 4G wireless frequencies degrade human and animal cellular function, causing a cascade of physical, mental, and emotional problems. Plant life and insects are not immune, either. (22)
Bets are good, based on the existing science, that the short-pulsed rays of 5G will add their own unique icing to this systemic damage. And, we can make an informed “bet” here as the military has been developing weapons using millimeter frequencies for several decades. Called “nonlethal” weapons or “active denial technology,” these weapons are touted for their use in crowd control and more. (23) In another field, patents exist using millimeter waves for insect control. (24) Yet, no safety tests on 5G millimeter waves have been done by the telecoms or required by the FCC. (25)
At a Crossroads
So, here we stand, as a country, as a city, at the crossroads of development. 5G is out of the gate and bearing down as billions of dollars are being poured into creating the infrastructure to deliver it. Imagine if that kind of expenditure was, instead, poured into expanding the fiber backbone and last-mile connections. With fiber, we could have rivers of light traveling inside the Earth, carrying data in a lightning-fast, safe, stable, and secure fashion to enhance our connection and creativity as a species. 4G wireless could serve our needs when away from fiber connections. In addition, with a fiber infrastructure, public wireless hotspots are easy to set up with external adjustable antennas that draw on the fiber. (26)
And some day, light (LiFi), rather than radio frequencies, carrying data without wires could become a potentially safer wireless alternative. LiFi can outperform 5G by at least eight times and is based on infrared light. (27)
Another important environmental consideration needs to be understood regarding the use of copper and other metals needed for the proliferation of wireless receptive devices. The mining activities necessary to obtain precious metals are dirty and dangerous. So, fiber is the ecological choice, too. Fiber has been around since the 1950s, and it was created to overcome the many issues that copper has. (28)
The irony is that every small cell installed needs wires running into it to carry the data that will be thrown out via wireless frequencies. So, extensive cabling is part of establishing the 5G network. And, the wires being installed for 5G are fiber.
Need for Political Will
In “Fiber, The Coming Tech Revolution — and Why America Might Miss It,” we see over and over that it takes tremendous political will for a city to pursue establishing a fiber network for its citizenry. Doing so is a concept that crosses with local telecom relationships, and the pressures and roadblocks can be formidable. It can also look dauntingly expensive at the outset, although there are grants and exceptionally low-interest loans available — and the resulting services do eventually pay for themselves, becoming a revenue stream. But then add in the FCC mandates of the last few years that force municipalities to comply with 5G, and the impetus to establish a local fiber network can seem useless.
There are a few success stories, though, and they serve as beacons. Chattanooga, Tenn., is one such beacon. They were able to establish their fiber system as a nonprofit held by the city-owned electric utility. When the utility launched the network in 2010, they projected needing 35,000 customers to break even. By 2017, they had tripled that number and paid for the debt incurred in building the system. The fiber part now pays for both electrical and fiber services, plus about 50 percent more than the cost of delivering the fiber and electricity. In June 2017, power rates were lower by 7 percent, thanks to offsets from fiber revenues.
The average monthly cost to Chattanooga citizens for their high-speed internet connection is $70 for a gigabit fiber connection. Low-income households enjoy 50 Mbit fiber connections for free, more than enough to participate meaningfully in the many educational opportunities the internet provides at no cost.
The marriage of the fiber and electric systems also allows Chattanooga to use the intelligence of thousands of switching devices responding to data carried over fiber to address power outages. This saved the city more than $130 million in the network’s first three years of operation. This sophisticated data management also allows for tracking and fine-tuning electric consumption and results in a third less waste of electricity. In addition, the revenue paid to the county as a nonprofit (in lieu of taxes) stays local and about half of those funds go to the school system. (29)
A next generation power grid installed in Bellingham, or anywhere, using renewable energy will need fiber to back it up. Only fiber can deliver the kind of tracking and efficiencies that Chattanooga has realized and that bring home the full benefit of wiser energy consumption.
Bellingham does have a fairly extensive fiber network in place, but most of it is privately owned by Wave and a few other companies. Only they know how much fiber they have and how well it has been maintained. The Port of Bellingham was urged by these private entities not to investigate running their own fiber.
The private companies argued that it was not necessary for the port to run their own fiber since these companies had already done so. However, a survey of fiber resources done by the port found that almost half of the privately owned fiber strands were broken. Additionally, the private network contains only 72 fiber strands, half of the 144 strands Mt. Vernon elects to install as their standard. The private companies are mostly focused on servicing the fiber backbone. These are referred to as “backhaul” services and are not necessarily customer oriented. Wave does offer access for businesses that need fiber, but it is expensive and not available in most locations. The hookup cost is $1,200-$2,000, depending on distance, and one gigabit (1,000 megabits) of data costs $900 a month with one-tenth of that speed, or 100 megabits, costing $250 a month.
CenturyLink came into Bellingham in 2017 with the promise of bringing fiber. They have installed some more fiber backbone, but so far only some customers in the right locations, such as a few places along Meridian, can get fiber to the home. They have also expanded some of the DSL services into the county. Otherwise, their expanded fiber backbone is still mostly using copper for the last mile connections. (30)
Municipally owned public fiber does connect to, and provide, service for our fire departments, police stations, schools, and other essential businesses. This public system was constructed with citizen tax dollars. When this fiber is hooked up and being used, it is called “lit fiber.”
A good portion of Bellingham’s fiber is “dark fiber,” meaning it is unused. To access the privately owned dark fiber in Bellingham, one must be in the right location and be able to pay the kind of hookup and monthly fees mentioned above.
Use of the public municipally-owned dark fiber is currently limited. Even though the city of Bellingham could make money from leasing its dark fiber, under current policy only a few of the bigger telecoms are granted leases in specific locations.
At this time, broader access to this municipal dark fiber could be used to help with the Covid-19 outbreak. For instance, antennae could be connected to municipal fiber to create public hot spots, enabling homeless and others to access the internet. This is particularly important, as many of the often-used public access places for WiFi, such as coffee shops and the library, are either closed or open with limited access.
In some municipalities, there are open-access agreements for dark fiber. This means that anyone can pay for a lease to access the network. But, to do so, they also must provide their own equipment. While this is expensive, with the lease and their own equipment, they can effectively become an internet service provider and sell internet connections to others, thereby offsetting their costs. This is done in Mt. Vernon, where nine internet service providers are on the system.
In Bellingham, current contractual arrangements for the fiber that is privately owned do not allow a lessee to compete with the network owner. So, the concept of open access is not viable with privately-owned fiber options.
The opportunity to have more local internet providers could be available if the city of Bellingham were to allow open access on our public network.
Jon Humphrey (mentioned at the beginning of this article) feels that, although the port and the Public Utility District have slightly different jurisdictions, both could work with the city of Bellingham and the county, and, together, all could start to move toward building out the current fiber network. The port currently has grants and access to other monies to start this. The county, particularly, needs this service as they are very underserved with DSL lines and poor satellite and wireless options.
To see much of what is discussed in this article come alive in terms of Whatcom County, you can watch the video of a March 5, 2019, port meeting. Gina Stark of the port gives an excellent presentation on the implementation study done regarding the economic feasibility and steps needed to expand the county fiber network. (31) (Video link in references.)
The caution at this juncture is in thinking that developing a fiber network can be skipped because 5G wireless is coming and will do the same thing,
To move ahead, Jon feels that Bellingham can take three important steps:
1. Adopt a Dig Once Policy. Dig Once means crafting and adopting policies and practices that take advantage of any excavation done so that at least conduit (which can be easily filled with fiber later) is laid down — although ideally fiber would be installed at the same time. The cost breakdown is about 90 percent for excavation, 8 percent for conduit, and 2 percent for fiber. Mt. Vernon models this with their Conduit Ordinance, as does South San Francisco with their Dig Once policies. Templates are also available from the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) and many other cities. (32/33) In 2016, Jon started a petition to the Mayor’s Office and City Council asking that a Dig Once policy be adopted in Bellingham and open access to our existing public fiber resources be provided. There are 2,478 signatures on it to date and Mayor Fleetwood, and several council members back it, but Bellingham’s public works director and IT director continue to hold it under consideration. The petition has also served as a tool to raise community awareness. To read and sign the petition, see link in the references below. (34)
2. Develop an open-access policy to make existing or new municipal fiber available for lease to interested parties.
3. Establish a Tech Advisory Committee, composed of a range of citizen experts to work with the city. It is not appropriate to include telecom representation on the committee, although the committee would expect to work with the telecoms and the city. This concept is similar to the Climate Action Plan Task Force (CATF) that Bellingham implemented to help craft the city’s response to climate issues. The work of the tech committee would cross-pollinate with the CATF, since some tech decisions do effect energy use and influence the climate.
A connected fiber network promises the emergence of whole new ways of thinking and living together. Innovation and creativity will feed economic growth and exciting new options in education, medicine, and the arts. The safety of the environment, all species, and data security would not be compromised. This is a vision for Bellingham to aspire to.
(13) “Fiber, The Coming Tech Revolution — and Why America Might Miss It” by Susan Crawford, Yale University Press 2018 Pg. 75-78
(15) “Fiber, The Coming Tech Revolution — and Why America Might Miss It” by Susan Crawford, Yale University Press 2018.
(18) https://www.computerworld.com/article/3310067/why-5g-will-disappoint-everyone.html “The 5G Myth: When Vision Decoupled from Reality,” William Webb, December 3, 2018, De|G Press.
(29) “Fiber, The Coming Tech Revolution — and Why America Might Miss It” by Susan Crawford, Yale University Press.
(31) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBV2nFMTX1s&feature=youtu.be&t=1077 (From 17-60 minutes.)