The Biden Administration and a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators recently reached an agreement on an infrastructure an plan worth $579 billion in new spending. Among other spending programs, the proposal contains a provision for $65 billion in federal spending to deploy fiber optic cables to “future proof” America’s digital infrastructure.
This spending would largely target rural and tribal areas where approximately 19 million consumers live without an internet connection needed to access essential services like telehealth, work remotely, and stream entertainment.
While the motive to provide access for consumers in these areas is noble, the data shows a significant percentage of Americans are not demanding a high-speed internet connection at home. Worse yet, this investment in high-speed fiber infrastructure would be overly costly and time-consuming. Instead of focusing on a fiber-only plan, the Administration should deploy a technology-neutral approach that involves other methods of delivering internet such as fixed-wireless 5G that meet the demands of consumers.
While fiber has the potential to deliver lightning-fast speeds to consumers at home, many Americans without home broadband are not demanding this service. According to a Pew Research Report from February 2021, 45% of Americans without home broadband say their smartphone meets all their needs. This figure includes nearly 20% who say that the capability of their smartphone is the “most important reason” they do not subscribe to home internet, compared with another 20% who cite the cost of service and 7% who list the price of a computer.
Fiber infrastructure is incredibly expensive to build in rural areas. According to the American Action Forum, delivering fiber to the 14% of areas that currently lack internet access would cost around $80 billion, with $40 billion of that total going to connect the last 2% of consumers. These Americans live in locations where building fiber infrastructure is simply not economically viable, such as in towns nestled in the Appalachian Mountains or isolated communities in Alaska.
Worse yet, constructing this infrastructure is incredibly time-consuming. Building Google’s fiber network, for example, requires laying thousands of miles of fiber optic cables. In a medium-sized densely populated city like Austin it took Google around two years to deploy fiber optic cables. Deploying fiber networks, especially in rural communities that are not suited for fiber infrastructure, could take decades.
The impracticality of fiber combined with the lack of enthusiasm for home internet means a fiber-only approach would not effectively address access problems and would only waste taxpayer dollars.
A neutral approach that allows for the choices of consumers is a much better strategy. Fixed-wireless 5G networks, which are currently being deployed in unserved areas across the country such as in rural Wisconsin, can sustain download speeds of up to 1 gigabyte per second over four miles in range. This network can connect Americans quickly and effectively in rural areas, yet it is missing from recent infrastructure proposals. Fixed-wireless 5G could be built in areas where fiber construction is difficult and expensive, ensuring consumers in these areas still have access to an internet connection if they demand it.
Fixed-wireless 5G services are also engineered to deliver the online service consumers demand. Due to much lower latency on 5G, consumers can connect to essential services like telehealth and browse the internet without delays. This network can also easily support popular services like Netflix and YouTube and Zoom and FaceTime, making it ideal for families across the country.
A fixed-wireless 5G network would also be available to the vast majority of consumers. According to a Pew Research survey from April of this year, 85% of American adults own a smartphone, and 53% own a tablet, devices that will easily connect to a 5G network but not fiber optic cable. To take advantage of this service, the new broadband proposal should be technology-neutral to include networks like fixed-wireless 5G and others that can be used to the benefit of consumers. While delivering broadband to Americans in unserved areas is a worthy endeavor, a fiber-only approach to this deployment misses the mark on what consumers are demanding. Fiber optic cables are difficult and expensive to build in rural areas, and networks like fixed-wireless 5G can be deployed quickly and deliver the services that consumers demand. Instead of presuming what is best for consumers, Congress should ensure future digital infrastructure reflects demand.