Why America Might Miss The Next Global Tech Revolution

Apr 24, 2019

Susan Crawford writes about fiber optic technology and its potential to change our cities- if big cable and internet providers stop getting in its way.
Credit Photo courtesy of Susan Crawford

History tends to repeat itself, and when it comes to new technology, the adage could not be more true. As with the advent of railroads and electricity, fiber optic connection holds huge promise for households and cities but is being held up and held back by companies who do not want to lose control over internet provision. While countries like Sweden, Japan and China surge ahead with fiber networks that are transforming medicine, education and city management, the U.S. lags behind and suffers from low-quality, high-cost connectivity. 

“Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution- And Why America Might Miss It” (Yale University Press/2018) tells the story of fiber technology and takes readers to just some of the 800 American towns where it is, with varying levels of success, being championed. Host Frank Stasio talks with Susan Crawford, author of the new book and a Harvard professor, about the coming revolution and what it would take to get it right in North Carolina and beyond.

Crawford is the keynote speaker at the NC Hearts Gigabit Interactive at the North Carolina Rural Economic Development Center in Raleigh on Friday, April 26 at 12:15 p.m.

Interview Highlights:

On why cable and internet companies don’t compete by providing better services:

Incentives really don't align, necessarily, with the public good. Their incentives are to divide markets … And serve the richest people with very expensive services that they're paying through the nose for, and then leave out a lot of the country — relegating them to state support … And then just hang on to the status quo. And that's what we've seen with high speed internet access.  

On how the U.S. is stacking up and the problem with the ‘last mile’:

There is lots of fiber running between cities in the United States. Google and Facebook often build their own, and certainly there's fiber running underneath the oceans between the U.S. and other continents. The bottleneck — and it is severe— is in the very last bit of the network that touches your home, [known as the last mile]. And there, these private providers who aren't subject to either oversight or competition, have no particular incentive to upgrade. And so we are at grave risk of missing out, particularly in a world where China plans to have 80 percent of their homes wired for fiber optic.   

On how the conversation about fiber is an echo of previous public debates:

North Carolina led the way in the progressive revolution of saying that: Actually, electricity is a utility. [It] should be publicly overseen and should be at a basic level for anybody moving into a house. They have to have a certain level of electricity there. We just can't imagine life without it. Well, we're in the same place we were with electricity in the ‘30s now with high speed internet access controlled completely by a handful of private companies — just five of them. And they've got the status quo. And it really is working well for them, but not well for the nation as a whole. 

On what we could do with robust fiber networks:

Imagine a pane of glass between you and anybody else. That's what this fiber connection would create. So eye contact becomes possible real human presence, which means you can actually visit a doctor, you know, for everything. Short of actual surgery, you can visit that doctor remotely and have a sense of being in their presence and being cared for. We waste so much money on medical care in America and hospitalization, we have no idea what we could be doing with these far higher-capacity connections. Same thing with education. Right now we think of distance education as kind of passively watching a Coursera course or maybe watching somebody else talk. What if you could actually be present in a classroom, feeling yourself to be part of that experience, able to raise your eyebrow and be called on? You know? It is hard for us to imagine what is yet to be developed based on these networks.