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Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution and Why the USVI Might Miss It

Notice: This is a book review/op-ed of Susan Crawford’s book “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution – and Why America Might Miss It” submitted by a Virgin Islander who lives in St. Thomas.


Reading Susan Crawford’s book, “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution – and Why America Might Miss It” (2018) made me both excited and frustrated at the same time. The work steps through the advancement of fiber optic technology parallel to the burgeoning of the telecommunications industry. It compares the nation’s struggle to bring electricity to all of its citizens in the 1930s, to modern-day efforts to bring about digital equity.

Crawford mixes in the story of an economically disadvantaged family with affordable access to FTTH (Fiber-To-The-Home) and the transformational power of that opportunity. She also offers a look at those caught between the ground and the sky, struggling through the growing pains of getting high speed internet service (or “broadband”) to American homes, in contrast to other countries that are further along (i.e., Norway, South Korea, Japan, and Chile).

FDR: Bringing Power to the People

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) served the nation from 1933 until his death in 1945. “FDR” as he was called, contracted poliomyelitis (polio) in 1921. From 1924 to 1945, his treatments included the use of an iron lung and warm baths offered at the Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation, which he founded (it was affectionately dubbed “the Little White House”). FDR noticed the glaring difference in pricing between Georgia and New York electrical service (NY prices were higher).

He also noticed that electrical services were not available outside of cities. This left the vast majority of America in the dark. If anything, one might have rudimentary service such as for a light bulb. The luxuries of electrical appliances (refrigerators, water pumps, heaters, etc.) were out of reach except for the wealthy.

He imagined what his life would have been like without the personal sanitation and labor saving devices supported by electrical power. He made bringing power to the people a priority by establishing the Rural Electrification Administration and issuing Executive Order 7037 on May 11, 1935. Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act in 1936 and President Roosevelt signed the bill into law on May 20, 1936. There are people alive today who lived through the slow electrification of America (and the Caribbean islands).

It was not until the early 1970s (over 30 years later) that almost 98% of American farms, for example, could boast having reliable electricity. From the late 60s onward, electricity became a standard necessity.

Technology and Me

I was not exposed to technology until 1977 when my family moved to Long Island, NY, and I discovered computer science classes at my high school. However, with no foundational training, I waited until after graduation to become computer literate on my own.

Hurry forward to 1995, when I purchased my very first computer running Windows 3.1. I was so excited. I recall watching The Microsoft Network home page creep down from the heavens for the first time over my 56 Kbps (kilobits per second) telephone line dial-up connection. Before this could happen, I had to add Windows socket files into the Operating System and install the modem after figuring out how to set the “jumpers” just right to get things to connect. Today’s computers get online directly out-of-the box.

In the United States Virgin Islands (USVI) where I lived by this time, the VIP FreeNet by the Internet Service Provider (ISP) Cobex offered free access to the internet without any bells and whistles. I became hooked and paid for their full service. The cost was based on the time spent online, so it could get expensive. It took a long time before monthly pricing for internet dial-up service became available in the USVI through a company called VIAccess. It would take nearly 25 minutes to download a music video then. High speed internet was something only a businesses could afford.

I had to learn a lot to keep up and stay connected, so I was constantly training myself in a pre-Google world. The library was my friend. Through online forums, electronic mail (Email), newsgroups and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) I got to know people all over the world. I have some friends to this day whom I know only from the internet.

Residential Broadband Rollout Ups the Standard

I always kept my friends and family up to date with tech so that we could be in touch no matter where I was located. In 1999, I moved to Georgia and ended up working for an ISP called MindSpring (later EarthLink). From 2000-2003, I was a tech support representative. My colleagues called me “Da Connecta”, and they always sent the senior citizens and less tech-savvy to me because I really loved helping them the most.

When broadband for residential use began to roll out, I lobbied to become one of the techs for that service and had to up my knowledge again. Fiber was extremely expensive, but DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) service over the existing copper wires was being sold. Cable companies also began offering high speed internet over coaxial cables. Back then the process for getting broadband could be quite lumpy and take months.

Once you have a taste of broadband compared to dial up, you cannot go back to waiting up to 2.5 minutes to completely load a web page! The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “true broadband” standard is now 25 mbps (megabits per second) download and only 3 mbps upload. But gamers, financial institutions, telemedicine, streaming media outlets, graphic artists and those wishing to use internet-based phone systems (for example) require upload speeds to also be higher for better response and seamless real time communication.

The Broadband Technology Opportunity Program (BTOP)

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, 2009) funded the Broadband Technology Opportunity Program, or BTOP under the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce. BTOP paid for broadband infrastructure, government and emergency interoperability, and supported free computer and internet access. These things would in turn boost local economies.

BTOP was a $4 billion grant program that tried to do what the Rural Electrification Act did: lay the groundwork to bringing an essential service to the under- and un-served. Core telecommunications networks were built to provide a “middle mile” where local Internet Service Providers (ISPs) could connect and buy wholesale broadband. Once it hits the ISP’s hardware, the signal enters the “last mile”, to be sold at retail by the ISP to a residential, government or business customer (you).

ISPs that lacked the investment capital for a 100% fiber-optic infrastructure now had the ability to connect through world-class networks, which offered brilliantly fast internet speeds that could support new internet products and services.  All 50 States and the 6 U.S. Territories received a portion of the ARRA of 2009. But we hit a wall: the “last mile” is expensive to build.

Wireless Needs the Wire

As FDR’s electrification directive was fulfilled long after his death, the BTOP initiative was only the beginning of our journey. The nationwide dilemma: the cost of getting to the last mile. Where hilly terrain is an issue, many ISPs distribute signal wirelessly after going out as far as they can along the middle mile.

Fiber is not subject to moisture and electromagnetic interference, and delivers the greatest amount of data at one time (throughput). But, these things can adversely influence wireless signal. Copper wire or coaxial cable can be subject to the elements or interference as well. Even the much-vaunted wireless service 5G in reality is only available in isolated areas due to the requirement for an amazing number of additional access points, plus spectrum availability and fiber optic access.

From reading this book, I have come to the conclusion that the only real solution to this impasse is to fund the last mile through federal grants, the bond market, public/private partnerships or philanthropic sources.

Fiber to the People!

The tug of war is real, and people suffer in all the time it takes to get this right. We have been looking to the ISPs to complete the run, and many are trying. But, we cannot thump them over their failure to satisfy such great and immediate demand.

I believe that what is needed is a presidential executive order for the federal grants needed to realize nationwide FTTP, or Fiber-To-The-Premise. This includes a lot of sub-categories, including Fiber-To-The-Home. Nothing less is acceptable. As with FDR’s Rural Electrification Act of 1936, it may take our POTUS to advocate for the Rural Fiber Optic Internet Act of 2019! It is our job to let local and national policy makers know that we are counting on them to make every American city a “Gig City”. We must do this by email, phone, written correspondence or face-to-face conversation. We must do it early and often and forever, until we have what we deserve.

With broadband, lifelong learning is at my fingertips; I am able to manage my affairs, communicate, learn, collaborate, create, and even earn certifications online. Sure, my own life’s work pales to that of a head of state. But, like President Franklin D. Roosevelt looked outside of himself and was moved to make a difference, I cannot imagine my life without high-speed internet access. Every American deserves quality, affordable, broadband to connect and level up.

In this reviewer’s opinion, Susan Crawford’s “Fiber” should be in all libraries, available to every citizen – and it should be required reading for each individual in elected office, too. It is a realistic look at what it will actually take to bring Fiber to the People.

Submitted on March 29, 2019 by: Anita Davis, who is an employee of the telecommunications company viNGN and submitted this op-ed as a private citizen. viNGN has provided free wifi in 15 public spaces on St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John since 2017. Featured image courtesy of Viya.