The 'full fiber' vs. 'tech neutral' debate heats up in US

Industry groups and policy advocates alike are sharpening their arguments for which technologies should be involved in closing the US digital divide.

Nicole Ferraro, Editor, host of 'The Divide' podcast

December 16, 2021

5 Min Read
The 'full fiber' vs. 'tech neutral' debate heats up in US

The US federal government's $65 billion broadband program is the country's single-largest commitment to achieving universal Internet access nationwide, and a funding deluge that people across the industry never expect to see again.

With that in mind, technology and policy stakeholders are eager to get it right.

"We will never be in a position to have this much funding available to get fiber to every American," said Gary Bolton, president of the Fiber Broadband Association (FBA), on a recent episode of The Divide podcast.

Bolton further discussed FBA's plans to take their advocacy for a full-fiber future to the states as they begin drawing up their broadband plans.

To that end, the FBA and NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association announced on Wednesday that they are developing an infrastructure playbook to assist state governments "as they seek to implement the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program and put funding to the best possible use in deploying broadband infrastructure."

The idea of fiber as the only technology suitable for closing the digital divide is a contentious one on Capitol Hill, where lobbyists from the cable, wireless and satellite industries have successfully pressured DC lawmakers to keep the infrastructure legislation "tech neutral."

Some broadband policy advocates have weighed in supportively as well. Speaking on the FBA's weekly "Fiber for Breakfast" webinar on Wednesday morning, Dr. Nicol Turner Lee, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the Center for Technology Policy, argued – to the chagrin of the FBA's Bolton – that the US should not spend all of its broadband funding on fiber.

"I may not be the most liked person right now on this call, but I have to say this: If we spend all of our money on fiber investments in rural, we might not have any money to do anything else," she said. "Building broadband is expensive. It's going to require a mix of private equity, private sector partnerships, government support, as well as nonprofits and cooperatives to come to the table together to figure out what solution works best for the communities that they serve."

Bolton, in turn, told Turner Lee her comments sounded "a little bit like fingernails on a chalkboard to me."

"I think you're saying that we should try the old argument that we should spread our funding like peanut butter and make sure that everybody has some kind of solution," he said. "We will never have this opportunity for investment that we have right in front of us to be able to make sure that urban areas or rural areas don't get a second-rate solution."

Acknowledging that fiber is needed for other solutions such as 5G and fixed wireless, Turner Lee said it's more important to serve the unserved than to pull fiber to every home.

"For me, if we go about serving those that have access or have the ability to have access so that they can do more, then we're not solving the digital divide. All we're doing is solving the supply side of the equation," she said.

On this episode of The Divide, Dr. Nicol Turner Lee shares what she learned about the digital divide while touring the US.

For Bolton, it may be more nails on the chalkboard as the FBA looks to advocate for its members in the BEAD funding process. Alan Davidson, President Biden's pick to head the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which is responsible for the $42.5 billion program that will go toward building broadband networks in rural and unserved areas, seems to agree with sticking with a tech-neutral approach through the implementation stage.

"If confirmed, I would support an 'all of the above' approach that allows NTIA and the states to consider any technology that will meet America's broadband needs," said Davidson in comments to Congress.

Not 'fiber or bust'

Whether or not the US incorporates wireless and satellite technologies into closing its digital divide, the fiber frenzy is alive and well.

Speaking on a recent virtual panel hosted by industry group ACA Connects – America's Communications Association, telecom analyst Craig Moffett remarked on the accelerated fiber builds of the past few years.

"There certainly has been this big step up recently. There were over 2 million-and-some-odd homes built by fiber-to-the-home last year. We're projecting 7 million plus this year and close to 9 million next year."

Moffett attributed that level of investment to low interest rates and borrowing costs, and an "enormous appetite for infrastructure."

Still, while he expressed skepticism about large fixed wireless buildouts, he also said the US is not headed for a full-fiber future.

"There's certainly a view that there's not a one-size-fits-all answer for broadband in the United States. It's definitely not going to be fiber or bust everywhere. You just can't make that assertion sensibly. So there's going to have to be a heterogeneous topology that has fiber in some places and WISPs in other places," he said.

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— Nicole Ferraro, site editor, Broadband World News; senior editor, global broadband coverage, Light Reading. Host of "The Divide" on the Light Reading Podcast.

(Homepage image source: Pixabay)

A version of this story first appeared on Broadband World News.

About the Author(s)

Nicole Ferraro

Editor, host of 'The Divide' podcast, Light Reading

Nicole covers broadband, policy and the digital divide. She hosts The Divide on the Light Reading Podcast and tracks broadband builds in The Buildout column. Some* call her the Broadband Broad (*nobody).

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