t byfield on Wed, 27 Jun 2001 08:17:19 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Re: Only 5% of laid fibre is lit in USA

mgurst@vcn.bc.ca (Tue 06/26/01 at 09:46 AM -0700):

> But the real reason is that the major cost of fibre is digging up the ground
> and once that is done, the incremental cost of another gazillion units of
> bandwidth is very close to zero.  So if laying one fibre is good, laying 20
> is better (and not much more expensive) and laying 100 is even better and
> and so on and then along come the boffins who are continuously at work
> figuring out how to pump more bits through the existing fibre so as to
> increase the return from already sunk fibre (or twisted copper) investments.
> So the argument by the WSJ and everyone else about the amount of unlit fibre
> is for the most part specious... its like criticizing PC owners for the
> amount of unused processing capacity they are getting with their upgrades
> from $3000 486's to $1000 Pentium 3's or whatever--the issue is not the
> amount of unused capacity but simply that the hardware is a necessity and
> the amount of unused capacity is part of the package, adding very little to
> the overall cost.
> The real question, that I haven't seen any figures on is how many installed
> bundles (or the length of installed fibre cables) are currently completely
> unlit.  I would guess that these figures would show a startlingly different
> result and indicate that the industry was probably pretty much on target
> with only a relatively minor overbuild and particularly in heavily
> concentrated markets where the demand would be likely to increase
> exponentially once the applications start rolling out.

these are all good points, but if you push the logic of the final observations
one step further i think you'll find that geographical distribution isn't just
a matter of differences in degree ('this market is overserved, but that one is
underserved'). rather, if the disparities are extreme enough, it becomes a dif-
ference in *kind*: the 'applications'--that is, ways in which it is used--will
diverge to such a degree that they'll become mutually unintelligible. this has
been a sort of ambient issue for several years in (to use a banal example) dis-
cussions about web design vis-a-vis real end-user bandwidth. but the emergence
of consumer-level broadband in *some* areas while other areas languish in ~28K
access will push these kinds of issues to qualitatively different levels.

we've already seen premonitions of this--for example, last year when there was
a spate of universities tackling the question of whether to filter out napster
traffic. several schools justified doing do by claiming that napster was satur-
ating their institution's connectivity. while i'm skeptical about that justifi-
cation, it's worth noting that there are other entities that could have made a
similar claim--entire nations or even regions with limited bandwidth, for exam-
ple. afaik, none did; but we've heard lots of noise about LDCs imposing severe
restrictions on other *low-bandwidth* forms of content. by now, we're all very
familiar with the libertarian tendency to lump all these issues together under
vague rubric like the 'free flow of information'; fortunately, there are other
ways to think about how and why these issues are related.

as you note, the major cost of laying fiber lies in digging, not in laying the
fiber once the ground is dug up. as a result, fiber tends to be distributed in
*centralized* patterns--that is, in ways that tend to entrench 'backbones' and,
in doing so, to further marginalize 'peripheral' areas. or it does so *if* you
assume that broadband access is an equity issue. in a way it is of course; but
in other ways it *isn't*, because growing disparities in the bandwidth that is
available to end-users will translate into growing disparities in *how* people
use 'the net.' but rhetoric about 'information-haves' and '-have-nots' is most-
ly nonsense: the range of services and resources available on the net is broad
enough that it's silly to think about these things in zero-sum terms. 

most of what's been said about dark fiber (pro *and* con) is mired in a supply-
side approach to what 'the question' is; but 'build it and they will come' has
been the leitmotif of attempts to commercialize the net, so it shouldn't be so
shocking to see the WSJ et al. inverting their supply-side assumptions and con-
demning the telecom industry for falling short of pumped-up expectations. more
important, i think, is how the fiber companies' conservatism will probably end
up fueling 'convergence' in oversupplied markets while maintaining differentia-
tion of media in 'undersupplied' markets.


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