The largest telecommunication companies in the United States are giving up on the infrastructure that helped turn them in near-monopolies: this week AT&T followed in Verizon’s footsteps by announcing that it would start phasing out its copper infrastructure in favor of a more up-to-date fiber network. Such a move, however, has impact on the country’s readiness when it comes to facing disasters and may require for the companies to jump through a number of regulatory hoops in order to achieve their goal.
Copper wire has served as the backbone of the country’s telecommunication infrastructure since the early 19th century. From electricity and the telegraph to telephone and cable TV, much of the infrastructure that runs modern countries is based on copper cables configured in different variations but ultimately doing the same thing: sending bits of information as electric signals down the line and turning those into electricity, sounds, and pictures. Over the years, improvements have been made to send more information down the line or to separate the wires on which the information was being sent, bringing us things like the ability to add multiple phone lines or carry TV or internet signals (the DSL services advertised by traditional telecommunication companies were based on that approach).
Starting in the 1930s, the US government gave the Bell System, a group of telecommunication companies, a government-sanctioned monopoly control over the telecommunication infrastructure of the country. This gave the companies a de-facto control of the copper wires for telephones that connected every home and office in America.
The infrastructure was interesting in that it not only carried phone service but was also fully able to operate without having any other electricity available. The copper wiring that carried the phone signal also carried its own electrical charge. This is why, even today, traditional POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) lines do not need any extra electricity to operate. For example, when Hurricane Sandy recently hit New York and New Jersey, corded phone service was still available to people in areas where electricity had gone out.
By contrast, mobile phone towers rely on electricity to power antennas that your phone can connect to. Mobile phone towers may be outfitted with extra batteries to allow them to operate for a few hours after an outage starts but they too, eventually, lose power and end up as ineffective form of communication.
Copper lines corded communication alone survives in those situation, making copper the cockroach of the telecommunication world, able to survive any type of attack nature or humans can thrown at up with impressive resiliency.
Sliding to glass
But that resiliency comes at a cost: electricity moves at a set speed that cannot be accelerated. The dream, for centuries, was to be able to move signal more quickly and more efficiently. In the 1970s, companies started figuring out how to move and modulate light over strands of glass known as fiber optic.
This technology breakthrough allowed for a new age of telecommunication as a single strand of glass the size of a hair allowed to move as much data as a regular copper wire. Because they took substantially smaller amounts of space, it was now possible to telecommunication companies to move more data at a faster rate over the same type of real-estate as copper. Along the way, the companies realized they could charge more for that increase in speed, leading them to see fiber optic as the future.
But this future did not come without some sacrifice. The resiliency that had been a trademark of copper went out the window as electricity and communication signals now moved on different types of wires. In a world where electricity is a stable output, concerns around such issues were not high and fiber started displacing copper as the weapon of choice for the new age of information.
But copper still ran in parallel because telecommunication companies, when they made the deal that essentially gave them control of the country’s telecommunication infrastructure, agreed that they would support an infrastructure that would be affordable to all. They continued to carry copper as the “cheap” option they could sell to customers who were unwilling to sign-up for faster and more expensive plans.
A change in the landscape
A few months ago, however, one of the largest telecommunication company in the US, Verizon, started signaling that it would move to abandoning copper in the near future. The move was mainly discussed by people in the telecommunication world but did not break through in the mainstream. A migration to Fiber made sense but the aggressive turning-off of copper seem to present a new stance when it came to dealing with the FCC (Federal Communication Commission), the governmental agency that regulates telecoms in the US. That a company like Verizon felt it could easily make the case for removing government control of its infrastructure (copper lines are more heavily regulated than fiber ones) showed that telcos now had substantially more strength in their negotiations with the government.
And this week, AT&T announced that it would walk in Verizon’s footsteps, phasing out its own copper line phone infrastructure. This means that, in an age of increasing severe weather phenomenons hitting large population centers, our telecom infrastructure may be increasing its reliance on a more efficient but also more brittle approach to providing service. And while there has been discussion of carrying electricity over fiber optic cable, the technology is still in its infancy, meaning that it may not quite be ready for open deployment.
Another challenge is that the price of services running over new fiber lines tends to be higher than that of basic services running on copper lines. For many lower and middle income families, this could represent jumps in their communication bills of as much as 30-50 percent. This has a potential impact of leaving some families to abandon getting such basic services altogether. While this would be fine with the companies that are providing the infrastructure, it may turn into the equivalent of a communication redlining, leaving a substantial part of the population without access to crucial services that could help them get help from the government, find and manage jobs, or educate themselves to move up the income ladder.
Communication, in our day and age, is turning into a civil right and many countries have already recognized it as such, leading some to embed a freedom to connect in their constitution.
An opportunity for municipalities
By cutting off a portion of the population from access to communication services, there could be new strains on how governments provides or can choose to provide services in the future, making certain things only optional instead of being able to evolve to a new age.
The promise of digital government rides on the availability of digital tools for all people. As such, without a general access communication infrastructure, things like delivering government services over the internet and phone instead of in-person, a way to reduce the cost of delivering critical offerings, would not be possible.
Municipalities and other government members must then take a hard look at how to deal with the phasing out of the copper infrastructure. And, at the same time, they must ask the question: does this need to be phased out? If businesses do not want to run copper infrastructures, it goes without saying that they may be willing to look at a government takeover of those infrastructures as one of the concession they might make to get approval on their plan.
While many municipalities have talked of building municipal fiber networks, no one has conceived of leveraging a municipal copper network. One can safely assume that Verizon and AT&T are not going to go out and dig out all the copper they have put into the ground so why not have the government take that infrastructure over? In this model, the government could work as the provider of low-end telecom services (since copper is inherently slower than fiber) but still have an infrastructure accessible to all. Since copper is ubiquitous in large population centers, you could see the rise of WiFi hotspots in public parks and public buildings, along with a new infrastructure that policemen, firemen, and first responders could use for access to service back at their central office.
In this new world, a low-cost internet infrastructure would be available to all for only a few dollars a month (if we assume that the service stays in the $15-25 range that most companies are charging for and that municipalities, instead of corporations, would get access to the Universal Service Fund and Connect America Fund) and would allow municipalities to provide extra capabilities to their first responders along the way. On top of it, it would mean preserving the type of infrastructure that still runs even when the electrical grid is out.
The only question that remains in making municipal copper a reality is the willingness of municipalities to get involved because the answer to whether they should accept the gift of a copper network is a no-brainer. How they can ensure that the FCC make such gift a condition of approval at AT&T and Verizon’s plans is now a question of political will.