FIBER OPTICS WATCH - Like many municipalities across the country, Los Angeles is in the throes of trying to figure out the best way to close the digital divide and provide unserved and underserved communities in the County with high-speed broadband connections to internet.
It's a tough and complex problem with no simple answers, although one thing is certain: no one would intentionally create another digital divide. But that's exactly what could happen if the County rushes ahead with current plans to fast-track the deployment of community wireless networks.
First, the basics. There are two types of broadband connections: wired and wireless. Wired (in this case we are speaking of fiber optic connections) offer blazing speed (up to 10 gigabits per second, symmetrical), superior reliability, low maintenance costs, and come without the proven and serious fire and safety risks associated with wireless networks and transmissions. Fiber is ready for the future, unlike wireless networks which will need constant upgrades and costly improvements as they struggle to keep up with future innovations.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) recently issued an announcement regarding the availability of $42.5 billion in federal funding for projects intended to address the digital divide. In the announcement, the NTIA stated that priority funding will be given to projects that provide "end-to-end fiber optic facilities to each end-user premises." The government only wants to invest in fiber, not wireless – a preference also articulated by the non-profit Benton Institute for Broadband and Society.
A study commissioned last year by the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors ("Free Broadband for the Residents of the County of Los Angeles: An action plan for community wireless networks to build digital equity") went the other direction, suggesting that the way to fix the digital divide problem is for the County to create a patchwork of community wireless networks, covering a few of the most needy neighborhoods in the County with the slowest, least efficient level of broadband connections. A band-aid, essentially, but one that could stick for years, creating another digital divide as this temporary fix alleviates at least some of the suffering and reduces pressure on politicians to finish the job.
To be fair, the study, which asserts that building out a fiber optic network will take years and cost "billions of dollars," was written before the NTIA announcement of funding. But there's another part of this story that no one seems to acknowledge: tens of thousands of miles of "dark" fiber optic cable already exist in the streets of Los Angeles County. Instead of using that fiber to connect to slow, inefficient, unreliable and dangerous wireless antennas, why not use it to connect directly to families that need it most?
How did the cable get here and why isn't it being used? Beginning in about 1991, across the country, telephone companies, the grandparents of today's wireless giants, sought rate increases from state public utility commissions for the express purpose of replacing their old copper lines with fiberoptic connections. For two decades, telephone consumers paid higher rates for their landline phone service to finance the build-out of the fiber optic network. Unknown to most people, the fiber optic lines were part of a state-regulated utility.
Somewhere around 2010, with the advent of the iPhone and apps, the telecoms realized they were shooting themselves in the foot: they could make a lot more money with their unregulated wireless business than they could as a utility. So, they began claiming the fiber optic cables were their private property, and instead of connecting the cables to their telephone customers as they had promised, they used the money from the rate increases to build their wireless business and used the fiber optic cables to connect to their wireless antennas!
Chances are good that people living in some of the poorest neighborhoods in LA – and the ones which the second-rate wireless network is supposed to help – are the same people who paid these rate increases on their phone bills, month after month and year after year, to the tune of....well, certainly enough to run the fiber optic cable from the street into their homes or apartments.
The unserved and underserved people of Los Angeles County don't need a temporary half-way solution that just might end up sticking around for years to come, depriving them of the education, employment and entertainment opportunities readily available to others. It's time for a public/private partnership that can light up the dark fiber, and the first people that should be connected are those who have been stuck on the other side of the digital divide for too many years. Call it payback or call it what it is: equity.
(Brenda Martinez is a mother, educator and community organizer in East Los Angeles. Doug Wood is the national Director of non-profit Americans for Responsible Technology. Both are founding members of the Fiber First LA County Coalition, on the web at FiberFirstLA.org. )