The way that we talk about the internet, one might think it’s an ethereal, amorphous, gas. We save some of our most important files, photos, and memories in an ambiguous “cloud.” Illegal goods and services are exchanged via cryptocurrency on the ill-defined “dark web.” We “upload” packets of information on a daily basis, unsure exactly what “up” really means.
In reality, the internet is dependent on physical infrastructure. Networks of cables transmit information around the world, forming complex, physically connected, webs — interwebs, if you will. The most modern and efficient of those cables are fiber optic, which transmit information at the speed of light.
However, plenty of the world’s internet infrastructure — including much of California — is still reliant on networks of copper cables. Before the pandemic, worrying about whether your home or apartment was wired with fiber optic or copper cable was largely a function of how much streaming media you consumed. In a post-pandemic world, however, it’s clearer to more people than ever before how vital a fast and reliable connection can be.
While the physical nature of internet infrastructure isn’t as apparent in urban centers like ours, it can be obvious in more rural areas. In the popular tourist destination of Puerto Escondido, Mexico, for example, the lack of a well-connected fiber network means many households don’t have internet. Connectivity speed for those who do have access is entirely dependent on how physically close their routers are to a looming satellite tower in the middle of town, which uses a mix of WiFi microwave signals and direct fiber links to send and receive data, but is connected to individual homes via copper telephone lines. The same is the case in many rural areas and low-income areas of the United States — a mark of inequality that policy analysts refer to as the “digital divide.”
Earlier this month, the nation’s largest privately-held wireless infrastructure firm, Mobilitie, announced that they had begun construction on another 200 miles of fiber, stretching between San Francisco and Oakland via the same transbay tube that carries BART trains. The new connectivity will branch out to 40 local data centers, and increase internet speeds for over 2,000 technology companies in the region. The new fiber network will reach 60 percent of the San Francisco Bay Area, according to a press release. But what does that mean for everyday users?
According to Ernesto Falcon, Senior Legislative Counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, probably not much. “I wouldn’t overestimate how far ahead of the curve that wireless connection is going to be,” he says.
As far as the Bay Area goes, even the worst off are, comparatively, pretty well connected. Fiber optic broadband service providers only reach 25 percent of California, according to FCC filings, though, in San Francisco, 65.31 percent of residents have access to fiber internet in their homes. The only better connected city is Los Angeles, with marginally higher fiber coverage of 66.52 percent. Counties along California’s eastern and northern border, however, fall behind, and often have 10-15 percent less coverage than their urban counterparts. Because of the disparities, Governor Gavin Newsom proposed a $7 billion investment in broadband infrastructure, which was approved as part of a $264-billion state budget last week.
But 200 miles more fiber installed by a private company doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of inequitable internet access. For one, the company has not released any geographic data as to which neighborhoods will be served, so it’s impossible to determine whether the new network will reach Bay Area communities that don’t currently have broadband or have limited access — mainly patches of southeast San Francisco, the Presidio, Treasure Island, West Oakland, and less developed swathes along the western edge of the North Bay, according to FCC data. Further, the way the fiber lines are arranged significantly impacts how useful they are — “converged” plans, for example, where networks between homes are more integrally connected, are significantly more efficient than standalone networks. In other words, how the fiber lines are arranged is as important in determining whether Mobilitie’s fiber upgrade will narrow the digital divide, as how many miles long it is.
“If it’s a completely privately held network and servicing a handful of private interests, then that probably doesn’t change much of anything,” says Falcon. “If it’s going to areas that have traditionally low speeds in terms of what they have for access, that’s a pretty good proxy that this is going to areas that lack the infrastructure.” Mobilitie did not release any maps or geographic data for their network upon request.
That being said, reducing the digital divide is not the only goal of improved internet infrastructure. Mobilitie CEO Christos Karmis also said in a press release that the new fiber network will change “the way businesses connect all over the region,” and he’s not wrong — many emerging technologies that require an instantaneous delivery of information, from advanced live streaming to self-driving cars, will require much stronger wireless infrastructure than we currently have. Though those technologies might not be crucial to our lives in the next five years, they very well may be in the next few decades.
Take, for example, public schooling during the pandemic. Knowing that not all Oakland students trying to learn online would have the adequate technology, Oakland Unified School District distributed thousands of laptops and internet hotspots to students. However, in addition to logistical problems actually distributing the technology, the hotspots themselves were often still inadequate, says Falcon, depending on how strong the wireless infrastructure already was in a student’s neighborhood. “Most of those [hotspots] sucked because they were far away from a useful tower, and they had to share connections that were already slow,” says Falcon.
From here, we all know the story: children who could not attend online classes, or couldn’t participate consistently, fell further and further behind their tech-equipped peers as the pandemic progressed. In future decades, remote education (and tech-enhanced education more generally) will only become more prominent, experts say, exacerbating inequality in education if every household does not have an adequate high-speed internet connection.
However as far as innovation goes, America is also only as strong as our weakest (web)link. Global competitors like China, meanwhile, are far outpacing America in nationwide broadband connectivity — between 2013 and 2019, for example, China outpaced America in broadband infrastructure development 9-to-1. That means global companies who want to test their nifty gadgets in the optimal wireless environment may choose to pilot their projects overseas, before bringing them here. “If you have an advanced Asian market with a billion [fiber] lines, you’re probably going to experiment there first, before you try to see where else you can,” Falcon explains.
For Americans in the next few years, that might amount to little more than FOMO — already, we have less access to some of the nifty tech that’s been developed in China, like near-universal mobile payments. In a decade, that might mean not being able to drive the same cars, or connect to our coworkers as efficiently, or be healed by the same health tech. “You know how when you have a slow internet connection, you’re like, ‘Wow, I really can’t use Facebook right now, I really can’t use Netflix right now?’” he explains. “That list of apps will just grow over the years.”