For the longest time broadband has been more hype than fact.  Why?  The answer has a lot to do with business realities and physics.  While it is possible to tackle these subjects independently, it is easier to look at them collectively.  After all, these two realities collide rather frequently, and the reason for this will become clear after looking at the physics behind why fiber optics are so vastly superior to copper wiring.

The Physics

It has been covered many times before, but the bottom line is that fiber optics are the next big thing because fiber optics have an astonishing amount of untapped potential.  On the other hand, metal wiring is a technology that is old enough to be given a senior citizen’s discount card multiple times over.  The problem is that metal wires use electricity to send messages.  Unfortunately, electricity degrades over time and creates heat as a byproduct of the degradation.  Higher performance signals degrade faster and generate more heat.

Fiber optics send light, which generates negligible heat and suffers almost no degradation over incredible distances.  There are many different ways to boost signal output or overall bandwidth, but fiber optics manage to do this in an incredibly efficient way: using different portions of the color spectrum.  This method provides an amazing amount of untapped potential, while similar ideas in the DSL/cable modem circles meet heavy resistance due to the fact that multi-spectrum signals degrade rapidly and generate amazing amounts of heat.

The Business

The rapid degradation and performance limitations of metal wires can be circumvented by installing sub-stations that strengthen and clarify signals.  Fiber optic networks do not need as many of these stations, which significantly reduces the amount of capital required to deploy a network; Permits, construction crews, and ongoing utility and maintenance concerns can be serious obstacles to contend with.

One should not gloss over the utility and maintenance needs associated with maintaining these substations.  While the initial costs of establishing a network of any kind are likely to be substantial, the maintenance and utility needs of these substations will constantly acts as a force that drives up prices for broadband service while simultaneously acting as a force against releasing faster services; upgrades often entail sweeping changes, and larger and/or more complex networks will theoretically require significant refitting.  In the end, customers end up footing the bill for such upgrades.

If the high bill for low performance was not as a serious issue in and of itself, there are other concerns that work against frequent upgrades of wired-networks.  One of the key factors is that upgrading or changing anything complex requires ample planning; more complex systems require additional planning.  Fiber optic networks also require upgrades, but the inherent nature of sending light keeps those upgrades cost effective.  The reduced number of substations in a fiber optic network result in quicker upgrades that are easier to plan, and that results in more frequent upgrades that are more affordable for all parties involved.

The Culmination of Business and Physics

Is it any wonder that Big Metal is trying its hardest to keep fiber optics away from consumers?  Big Metal current accomplishes this with incredibly large advertising campaigns that are so expensive that smaller fiber optic startups cannot really compete.  For that matter, smaller fiber optic startups typically share fiber optic connectivity with major network carriers also tend to categorically lack the political clout and weight that cable companies and telecoms have.  As a result, fiber optics are an excellent choice to replace metal wires, but Big Metal is unlikely to sit by and see that happen without a fight.

A few major corporations, such as Verizon and Google, have now thrown their respective hats into the ring against Big Metal.  Verizon has done so for years with its Fios network, and almost everyone has heard about Google’s fiber optic plans.  Some smaller regions are fortunate enough to be close enough to major fiber optic nodes while simultaneously being underserved by non-competitive Big Metal.  In these cases, Big Metal usually has existing exclusivity arrangements in such areas, but there are many cities in Utah that are shining examples of what can happen when fiber optics disrupt this balance: Utopia Net is a great example of this in action, especially when one compares prices for cable/television services in cities not serviced by Utopia’s fiber optics.

A Call to Action

Readers would be well served to investigate the situation in their own cities, starting with the following questions: How many broadband/cable/telephone service providers are in the city?  What happens if a new provider were to arrive?  Are there provisions protecting the infrastructure investment of the existing companies?  If so, when (or if) does Big Metal’s exclusive arrangement end?  Who supervises contract extensions?  Find these people and tell them how important fiber is to the future of the city, and do not stop telling them.  Big Metal has stymied growth for too long while simultaneously claiming to deliver ‘cutting edge’ broadband services.  Power to the people!


  1. bbgrunt

    Economics will keep FTTH down for quite a while. And in the case of cable, don’t kid yourself, the results are comparable, and will get better depending on an individual system’s willingness to give up analog video (for compatibility with customer’s old sets). It’s great Verizon is working at it, but they’re taking a financial bath to do so.

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