Waiting for Fiber Broadband? Don’t Hold Your Breath

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In the early 2000s it seemed like fiber-optic broadband was going to be the next revolution in communication technology. Soon we’d be dispensing with copper wires and sending gigabytes of data to one another at the speed of light. Sadly, it didn’t quite happen, and the roll-out of fiber telecom networks in America has been fitful at best in recent years.

It’s Not About Federal or State Funding

Unusually, with government led programs such as that designed to overcome the Digital Divide, the problem is not one of focus and funding. In April 2021 the President’s official Twitter account announced “Let’s close the digital divide once and for all. Our American Jobs Plan will make sure every American has access to high-speed internet.” 

Highlighting that 35% of rural Americans lacked access to high-speed broadband of any kind, the Whitehouse committed to a significant package of funding. In November of 2021 this amounted to $42 billion from the infrastructure package to close this divide, including grants of at least $100 million for every state.

With more people working from home than ever before, and many employers developing a hybrid model of work during the COVID-19 lockdowns, it became important to enhance telecoms networks for commercial reasons, as well as to address unfair disparities within underprivileged communities. There’s no shortage of the will to deliver fiber networks.

It’s About Supply Chains

In recent years global supply chains for fiber cabling, transistors and other components have become strained. With so much of the industry requiring imported technology, and other economic regions including Europe and India upgrading their own networks at the same time, bottlenecks in supply have developed.

Semiconductors have been in short supply for over a year, with geopolitical factors making it difficult for Taiwan, the world’s global supplier of such technology, to enhance production to cope with surging demand. New investment in US-based semiconductor manufacture may help, but it’s also likely that new companies entering the field will focus on the latest generations of semiconductors, with a broader customer base, and thus produce far fewer of the components which existing, older fiber networks require.

Interviewed in Broadband Communities magazine, Ronan Kelly, the CTO of ADTRAN, noted “investment dollars are primarily focused on developing and manufacturing the seven-, five- and three-nanometer technology chips for bigger returns.” It seems that fiber broadband networks have been rendered fragile by the slow speed of rollout globally.

In the meantime, there are lengthy backlogs in supply, with vendors asking for purchase orders in excess of six months in advance in order to guarantee supply, according to a letter written to President Biden in early 2021 by a group of network trade associations. The letter urged the backing of the  Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors (CHIPS) for America Act, designed to spur commercial investment in homegrown semiconductors. The Bill was introduced to congress in October 2020 but has not yet been considered in committee.

It’s not just the chips, however. It’s the fiber itself. In November 2021, AT&T announced that it would have to delay rollout of fiber cabling to 500,000 homes because of a shortage of cable and components. They had planned to wire up three million homes but had to reduce this by a sixth due to supply chain problems. Even after fulfilling this revised promise, in AT&T’s 20-state coverage area, there would still be 20 million homes needing an upgrade from their current copper wire provision, with no concrete plans to do so.

Fortunately, fiber filaments are a little easier to manufacture and a host of companies are scaling up to do so, including SpecTran, Alcatel and India’s HFCL. Still, every part of the manufacturing process has to be in sync in order for fiber rollout to work – there’s little point in stockpiling mountains of fiber if you lack the components to transmit or translate those pulses of light into usable data.

With wait times of up to 15 months being not uncommon, it becomes exceptionally difficult to plan fiber rollouts. With that kind of time lag demographic changes occur, geopolitical developments encroach and tech innovations threaten to render network plans obsolete or no longer feasible.

It’s also about Labor Shortages

Furthermore, there’s underinvestment in fiber telecom technology training, leading to a shortage of qualified engineers. Debbie Kish, the vice president of research and marketing at the Fiber Broadband Association explained to AGL Media, “Service providers deploying fiber are having a difficult time building out fiber networks fast enough because of the lack of workforce.”

Seemingly there aren’t sufficient trainees entering the fiber broadband supply industry, a fact which prompted another industry-wide letter to the President’s office in January 2021. This time the plea came from a host of telecom network organisations including the Wireless Infrastruture Association (WIA), the Wireless Internet Service Provider Association (WISPA), NATE: The Communications Infrastructure Contractors Association, the Competitive Carriers Association (CCA), NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, and several others.

The letter stated, “needed investments in broadband infrastructure will increase demand on a labor force already in short supply. To improve the efficiency of federal funding, a corresponding initiative is needed to develop a workforce properly trained with the skills to deploy next generation wired and wireless networks.”

How does the Rest of the World Compare with the USA?

While America struggles to obtain the components and workforce it needs to complete its grand ambitions vis-à-vis fiber network provision, other countries are faring much better (and some considerably worse). The OECD league table of fiber connectivity is revealing. 

The poor old United Kingdom lags painfully behind (as this London-based writer can personally attest), with less than 4% of homes having fiber connections. At the other end of the scale, almost 84% of South Korea’s 51.18 million homes boast high-speed fiber connectivity.

In Europe, Spain is doing spectacularly well, while Italy and Germany are faring little better than the Brits. Much of their success will depend, of course, on when each country chose to kickstart its fiber rollout. Those that got in early, say in the 2010s before supply chains became an issue, secured a headstart. 

In South Korea’s case, a combination of massive investment, market deregulation, consumer protection and early tech adoption contributed its primacy in fiber deployment. Legislation was passed to prevent telecom providers engaging in large-scale mergers and acquisitions, which promoted competition. Access to high-speed broadband was defined as a citizen’s right, and protections were put in place to prevent consumer price gouging.

The recent bills passed by Biden’s administration do go some way to addressing years of underinvestment, but it will take a considerable time for local manufacturers and telecom providers to make good on the government’s promises. The comparison with other countries is a little unfair, in any case. America has six times the population of South Korea and one hundred times the land mass (which does rather beg the question – what is the UK’s excuse?)

Geopolitics and Other Factors

Meanwhile, supply chain issues continue to develop, and global geopolitics threatens to further complicate matters. Just as the West is beginning to realise that it must divest itself of reliance on Russian oil, tensions between China and Taiwan might make it a risky bet to rely on that prevalent source of semiconductors for much longer.

Global production of rare earth elements threatens to cause supply problems upstream too. Rare elements including lanthanum, cerium and terbium are used for their unique properties in all kinds of electronic components, including those used in telecommunications. These elements exist in comparatively tiny amounts and require complex processes of extraction, making them expensive to obtain.

A great many of the REE used by the communications industry are mined in China, which has been ramping up production significantly since the late 1990s.  Ytterbium and Erbium, for instance, are commonly used in fiber-optic amplifiers, and are sourced, chiefly from China. Therefore, such supplies are presently dependent on the USA maintaining cordial import-export agreements with the Chinese.

Conclusion: The Revolution is Coming (Just not as Quickly as you’d Like)

For all the above reasons, the long-promised Fiber Optic revolution is slow in coming. However, for the US to remain competitive alongside Europe and South-East Asian, its development is essential. Globally, predictions of fiber penetration of communications markets remain bullish, with Kagan, a research division of S&P Global, predicting that by 2025, fiber will account for 62% of global communications networks.

However, the same report predicts that North America will continue to lag behind. By 2025, the Kagan report predicts, just 17% of US domestic broadband users will have fiber connections, compared with 83% in the Asia-Pacific region and over 40% in Western Europe.

If this is to change, it seems that a radical revision of technological investment, supply chain restructuring and industry-wide recruitment and training drives is needed. Fiber is coming, of that there’s little doubt, just not any time soon.

Alternatives to Fiber Optic Networks

In the meantime, national governments, states, and organizations have found alternative technologies for providing reliable broadband to their residents or employees. These include the tried and true fixed wireless access, 4G/5G, satellite networks, and private long-term evolution networks (LTE).

4G signal strength is a viable alternative to fiber for the transmission of large data packets for individual consumption (think IoT common actions, optimized streaming, etc). 5G is higher performing and the networks are expanding rapidly; by June 2021 a GSA report showed that 58 countries had viable 5G networks. The higher band spectrum of 5G makes it much more reliable for data transmission at scale, but coverage is still patchy.

Satellite networks are expanding, with entrepreneurs like Elon Musk developing his more affordable Starlink Service. However, there have been teething troubles which don’t make this a viable short-term solution, even if it proves revolutionary in the long term.

Private LTE over CBRS is a network option that use compact radio masts and the same technology as 4G or 5G, but create secure, smaller networks in specific localities. In the US, they broadcast on a reserved frequency at 3.5GHz (the same frequency as CB radio).

Over the next 3-5 years, Fixed Broadband and Private LTE networks will provide a viable alternative to fiber, for localized, secure networks that work in hard-to-reach rural communities or in organizational settings where security and reliability are key.

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