[ Guest Writer Atul Deshmane, a PUD Commissioner, County Planning Commissioner, and Broadband Advisory Group (BAG) member, outlines some of the biggest infrastructure issues facing Bellingham today.]
This article is an attempt to provide an outline, in clear language and brief paragraphs, of the internet infrastructure topics now being discussed in our community. As a PUD Commissioner and County Planning Commissioner and technology professional, I have come to believe there are many important reasons to prioritize the development of a public fiber optic infrastructure.
Broadband/connectivity needs are growing, but what is “acceptable” broadband? While there are a variety of physical means to provide connection to the internet (fiber, copper wire, cable), “acceptability” is defined in terms of communication speeds. In 2015, the Federal Communication Commission defined it as 25 MB delivery of data to the end user (‘download’) and 3 MB delivery from that end user (‘upload’). It is important to note that our data needs increase by 50% each year which means demand for throughput is increasing by 50% every year and, luckily the capability of fiber optic infrastructure is increasing by 100% every year. I support fiber because it meets our current needs, it’s fast, and it keeps getting faster.
We need broadband that is symmetric; which means upload and download speeds match. Private telecoms built their copper infrastructure for delivery of media content (download), not information or data you may want to transmit (upload). Most wireless technology is not symmetric either and will continually require new protocols and end user devices. But our needs for data have rapidly evolved from passive consumption to interactive consumption and delivery, meaning both upload and download. Many of us have experienced problems using applications like Zoom which needs faster upload speeds. Upload speed is also critical for office, education, and tele-health applications. Fiber is already symmetric.
The energy, carbon, and environmental footprints of our telecommunication systems are burgeoning. Over the last few years, there has been an explosion of networked devices with embedded wireless antenna (think phones, tablets, laptops). The energy footprint created by these new devices is concerning. 5G frequencies consume more energy than 4G networks. Additionally, 5G antenna need a line of sight, which means trees in the way of 5G towers are being removed. Starlink (satellite wireless) generates an estimated eight metric tons of carbon emission associated with the launch of each satellite. Since Starlink is planning to initially launch over 40,000 satellites, carbon pollution under this system is a grave concern. At the same time, transmission losses through wireless and copper are an order of magnitude larger than losses in fiber optic cable. Fiber has a smaller environmental footprint.
Durable and reliable infrastructure is fundamental. Copper and wireless infrastructure is not only slower, it is also more likely to become overloaded, creating frustrating reliability issues for the user. When wireless communications begin to break down, they often requires replacement of the antenna—in other words, the entire device. As an alternative, fiber optic cable is more durable and reliable than either wireless or copper cabling: if buried, fiber can last up to 100 years; if a fiber wire fails, a replacement can be pulled in and spliced. Fiber will perform better and last longer.
Fiber optic infrastructure promotes social equity. The revolution that our consumer products industry foresees for home devices may not reach economically disadvantaged communities. Public fiber infrastructure is less dependent on these personal network devices. With public fiber infrastructure, these households will have access to world class connectivity. Over time, and due to fiber’s durability and reliability, public fiber networks will remain the most cost competitive and energy efficient infrastructure to serve end users. This sustained, high-performing infrastructure will enhance social equity.
Competition is to everyone’s advantage. Our telecommunication providers have depended on market controls of access through agreements implemented at the federal, state, and local level. Local governments enter franchise agreements. State governments limit the retail and service authority of public utilities, and the federal government provides preferential assistance to private sector telecommunications companies. A public fiber infrastructure will allow many more internet and data services providers to rely on a fiber backbone that is owned, maintained, and operated by the public sector. At the same time, fiber infrastructure has been proven to increase private sector participation, because areas with public fiber networks have many more service providers than areas without public fiber.
Cyber security was declared the number one threat to our national security two years ago by the Director of National Intelligence. Wireless internet creates extensive potential for data breaches. Our most secure facilities are relying, almost exclusively, on fiber to handle mission-critical data services because fiber optic communication is inherently more secure. Fiber supports our national security.
There are certainly other perspectives on this subject and I am open to hearing them. My goal and intent is to work with others in our community to develop infrastructure that serves our community well. For more discussion, which I welcome, please comment below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
[Disclaimer: Although I am a PUD Commissioner and County Planning Commissioner, neither of these bodies has reviewed or is endorsing this document. These are my opinions, informed by my work in the private and public sector. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my personal perspective with my community. Atul Deshmane]