When solving the digital divide, it’s time to lose the Fiber-Only mentality.

I’m not anti-fiber, I’m pro solution. Let’s start there.

Communities across the United States, and throughout the world, differ greatly. That’s a given. Not all of them have the same budget, politics, layout, or density of population. One solution is hardly the answer to solve any problem a municipality faces. Digital equity is no different.

If there’s one thing that a global pandemic taught us, it’s that the lack of connectivity in all of our communities is a serious issue. It stops kids from being able to attend school, attain education, and do things like break the poverty cycle. It stops adults from being able to contribute to their households by attending work, maintaining jobs, and finding creative ways to make extra money. It takes away people’s access to healthcare, education, entertainment and more, with the residual effect of creating hiccups in our workforce, tax base, and ultimately municipal funding.

Lack of connectivity has an effect on every aspect of our society. In short, the plumbing that carries our economies and daily life is broken or nonexistent for a lot of communities, and this isn’t new. This has been going on for quite some time, all the pandemic did was show how bad it is and how often it’s been glanced over.

Now that the government is trying to dump hundreds of billions of dollars in funding to help solve this problem, it’s also showing off one of the main reasons why broadband and connectivity has yet to be as pervasive as everyone would like: Stubbornness.

There’s this wretched mentality that if a city doesn’t provide a fiber optic connection to every single household in its community that it’s not good enough. I wholeheartedly disagree with that statement. Telling a municipality that the only way they can solve the problem is by throwing the most expensive technology at it quite simply terrifies them.

When you’re looking at a community, like the one I grew up in down in rural South Texas, a city called Mercedes, Texas, of course fiber optic connections to every single household would probably benefit them. But when you approach the Mayor, the city Council, the city manager, or anyone in a municipality like Mercedes and tell them that the only way to solve this problem is to run fiber optics to every single household, you’re going to get a blank stare.

Not only is there a total lack of understanding of how to deploy that network, but there aren’t enough city resources to manage that network. There’s also not enough funding to pay someone else to manage that network. On top of that, you have a small percentage of the population that actually own and maintain their own devices. The school district provides some devices, but those are only for the students. To me, this makes the futile goal of dropping fiber connections to every single household to create a digital inclusive community a vain attempt at solving the problem.

My opinion is that creating a digital community and providing digital inclusiveness is about providing access to more than just the student, it’s elevating everyone in the community. You’ve got to think bigger, more inclusively, and more creatively to solve the broadband gap problem. A single-threaded approach, like only relying on fiber connectivity or only providing access to students, is not the correct answer.

Check this out. Texas has 1200 incorporated cities. Only 30 of those have more than 100,000 people. There are over 400 towns and cities that have less than 1000 people in them. It sounds like it would be an ideal solution to deploy fiber optic communications to every single homesite, right? The problem is most cities don’t have a viable way to do that. Not only do they not have the staff or funding to pay for the deployment (engineering, trenching, equipment, maintenance, etc.) but how are they supposed to maintain it when the government funding is gone? I’m sure there are tons of great partnerships out there, but those also require ongoing funding. A tax base in a city of less than a thousand people can’t support an initiative like that. They can’t even afford to hire their own IT person the majority of the time.

My point is, there are a lot fewer communities that can take advantage of something like a citywide fiber roll out than those that can, and if the first approach is that fiber is the only way to solve the problem, then there’s gonna be plenty of no’s and few yeses. But fiber is NOT the only option.

Fiber is not the only way to solve the digital divide. It may ultimately be the most resilient and currently fastest medium there is, but just because a helicopter can get you to work the fastest doesn’t mean that it’s the only way to get to work.

So why are people so hung up on “fiber first, fiber only, fiber always”?

Capacity, longevity, stability. It’s faster than anything, it’s ultimately scalable (obviously at a cost to CPE and infrastructure equipment) and it’s steady – no interference, no issues. It works great when it’s available and online.

My theory on why people push fiber first? Education. There are so many incredible technologies out there that are more cost effective per home and per deployment than fiber. They get people connected at a fraction of the cost, in a fraction of the time. Locally, the cost of a linear mile of fiber can run between $10,000 – $30,000. That’s one mile, point A to point B. I can stand-up a wireless service capable of delivering 50+ Mbps of access to 300+ homesites on top of a water tank for that same amount of money and I can do it in a matter of days and weeks.

Let’s talk about wireless.

Now, there’s a stance that if you’re providing less than a gigiabit of connectivity to a student or home site then you’re not solving the problem, you’re perpetuating it. Up until the last year and a half, you weren’t able to provide gigabit connectivity in affordable fashion to multiple home sites with wireless, so it always took the backseat for anyone to think of it as a “serious” connection method (at least in the fiber only circles.) Those days are gone.

With the Facebook Connectivity Terragraph product now finally out on the street through manufacturers like Cambium Networks, Siklu, and Radwin there’s a viable wireless option to deploy gigabit connectivity to households in a more cost effective manner. Without the ongoing maintenance fees associated with some of the equipment and their service platform, manageability of the network has some of the cost removed. This leaves room for programs to help get devices and education in the hands of the community … in addition to the connectivity, not instead of it.

With technologies like CBRS and traditional point to multipoint platforms, you have the ability to provide into the hundreds of megabits of service quickly, and much more cost effectively than fiber solutions.

With Wi-Fi, you have the most cost-effective solution possible for the end-user while being the easiest to manage and one of the quickest deployment solutions around.

No special device required at each home, no external antenna or transceiver, no massive education lift for the user or operator and there’s the added benefit that it is already built into devices that are inside the home. Users can immediately take advantage of the service.

So now what you have out on the connectivity landscape is an industry trying to show everyone how they can solve a problem quickly and effectively, while you have another group saying that their way is the only way because it’s either gig or nothing.

At the risk of sounding like one of my grandparents, it was and still is complete hogwash.

Providing enough capacity for each student to get their work done during school hours and sufficient throughput for them to consume education and entertainment after hours truly makes them a part of the digital community.

When communities, school districts, and organizations step up to do what they can, where they can, when they can, it’s their way of helping to solve a problem. Someone who says that their way is the only way is usually the group that gets left behind.

When you couple the my-way-or-the-highway attitude with the fact that the highest cost of entry into a household is a fiber connection, not just from the equipment and services side, but the ongoing cost of administration, maintenance, and support, Fiber tends to make less and less sense for smaller communities.

So is fiber-optic the best medium for your community?

As with anything, it depends. Can it deliver the absolute fastest connection to the home site? Yes. Is there a huge cost involved in that? Yes. Can the citizens of the municipality and the students at the school district take immediate advantage of it? Not everywhere, and more times than often, they can’t. Their tablet, chromebook and mobile devices don’t have Ethernet ports. You’re going to have to convert the fiber optic connection to Wi-Fi in the home site anyway.

Should a fiber optic deployment strategy be part of an overall digital inclusive community plan? Absolutely. It’s one component out of many that should be considered. But that doesn’t mean fiber to the home is a necessity, nor does it mean that fiber is the end-all-be-all solution for solving the problem of the digital divide.

I mean, but that’s just like, my opinion, man.

Lemme know if you wanna talk about this – drew@drewlentz.com / drew@gofrontera.com

Thanks for reading!

One thought on “When solving the digital divide, it’s time to lose the Fiber-Only mentality.

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  1. Great article with much food for thought. Indeed, in the least developed countries (LDCs), only one in five people use the internet, compared with four out of five in developed countries. And in those countries with access, there is an additional distinction between the digital divide and digital inequality. The divide marks the difference between those who have access to the internet and those who do not, whereas inequality is related to its use. In places where there is both poverty and internet access, people with more economic difficulties tend to connect less, and when they do, it is usually for entertainment. Only a segment of the underprivileged population can benefit from the advantages of the internet, such as for accessing knowledge, saving time, and buying things more cheaply. In other words, if we are to leverage the incredible power of the internet, we need to both expand access to it and teach people how to use it properly for their own advantage.

    I discuss this in chapter 13 of my latest book Taking Action Online for the Environment, Social Justice and Sustainable Development.

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