Waiting for Harry Potter

A couple of years ago, the fiber line that runs past our house was accidentally cut, leaving the sheared cable lying across our driveway. Verizon was terrific at responding and repairing the line, and while I waited, I took my boys out on a type of Internet search. The search for the physical Internet. First, I showed them what the fiber looks like and traced with them the path along the road, down a pole, buried in our yard up to the optical network terminal at the side of our house. I showed them where the Cat 5 cables ran through our house, the routers and wifi access points.

I then got them in the car and drove them down the street where there is a Verizon Central Office and, because Ashburn, Virginia is not far from our home, I drove them to the building where Equinix manages an exchange point for well over one hundred ISPs. We couldn’t go in, but I’ve been inside on other occasions to see the cross-connects and colored cables and air conditioning units and back up power and all the physical things that make the Internet a magical place.

Why torture my boys so? Because their whole lives have been lived in the Internet era. They have grown up with iPads in school, and smartphones, and laptops and gaming consoles, and smart TVs. I wanted my boys to understand that the Internet may seem like Harry Potter magic, but the networks are real and prosaic. Poles, ducts, conduits, wires, non-descript brick buildings housing cabling and computers. Millions of miles of glass. Built the way people have built networks throughout history. By hard, physical labor. My boys spend a lot of time in virtual spaces; I wanted them to appreciate the physical and tangible infrastructure all around them.

I was thinking of this trip with my boys just the other day, as I read of Google Fiber’s decision to lay off half its workforce, and AT&T’s snarky response. Various reasons were given by analysts for Google’s decision: overspending on the network, the sheer size of a national undertaking, the acquisition by Google of a small fixed wireless operator that focuses on apartment buildings, the low margins of an infrastructure business as compared to the high margins of the software business, or that it was always something of a bluff by Google to get the large ISPs to up their game.

All the explanations amounted to the same thing: it’s hard work building physical networks. Not the clever work of writing code. Maybe the project simply doesn’t suit a company like Google.

AT&T was merry in its sarcasm. AT&T is building miles and miles of fiber and connecting customers to 1 Gigabit services. Except in rural America. In rural America, AT&T’s answer is a fixed wireless service. 10 Mbps, not 1 Gbps. So, 100 times slower. Slower speed, more delay, capacity constraints. That should be good enough for the folks foolish enough to live so far from central offices, right?

AT&T has strayed far afield from the notion that all Americans should receive comparable telecommunications service – that quaint Universal Service concept. Oh, I know, the federal statute says “reasonably comparable,” which is a lawyer’s weasely way of saying “not as good.” AT&T is doing exactly the right thing, for its shareholders. And AT&T is exactly right to point out Google’s short attention span.

If you’re reading this blog, I trust you live in rural America and have been served for decades by a rural electric cooperative. You are my only intended audience.

Google is not coming to help you. Neither AT&T, nor Verizon, nor CenturyLink, nor the other large telcos are coming to help you. The smaller telcos have been receiving billions in subsidies every year from the federal government, and if they haven’t built a fiber network by now, they are not likely to do so. Cable companies don’t build in areas with a population density of less than ten homes per mile.

No new technology is being invented to help you. 5G mobile networks require more fiber. If you don’t have great unlimited 4G service in your home today, why would you think 5G will provide better rural service? 5G and mmWave technology are not rural solutions. Satellites won’t ever provide you the speed or capacity or low latency of fiber networks. Drones with Internet access service won’t be buzzing over your home, and balloons or blimps with radio equipment won’t be coming to your skies. Neither the federal government nor the Ministry of Magic is going to fix this for you.

I know it’s fun to believe in magic. I read all seven Harry Potter books out loud twice, once to each of my boys. But believing in magic solutions – waiting for a magic company or magic technology or magic government help – isn’t going to get the job done.

If you want to help your community, help yourselves. Do the hard, physical work. Don’t wait for the telephone company or the government or a new invention. As dozens of electric coops are doing already, build a fiber-to-the-home network by leveraging your existing electric network. No one else is going to do it for you.