Community Fiber Networks, Symmetry, and the Flu

Many publicly owned community fiber networks offer symmetrical connections - allowing subscribers to both upload and download content at the same speeds. This approach treats the subscriber as both a producer and consumer of content (one of the reasons I generally avoid calling a subscriber a "customer" or "user").

Nearly all private network offerings are asymmetrical - DSL and cable are more less subject to constraints that encourage asymmetry, but in the case of fiber, one might assume that private companies are generally more interested in selling content to subscribers rather than encouraging them to create their own.

These companies have generally argued that symmetrical connections are just not necessary because most people are inherently more interested in downloading content than uploading - and note that on existing networks, people tend to download more than they upload.

However, the aggregate data of some 7,000 users on a fast, symmetrical network in Europe suggests that when subscribers have the opportunity, their upload usage balances the downstream usage.

We should continue pushing for increased upstream capacity from providers - especially providers that have to listen to their community. As for absentee-owned companies only interested in profits, well, good luck.

Which brings me to the flu. One would rationally expect that when a profit-maximizing company builds a telecommunications network, it will make different trade-offs when it comes to redundancy and spare capacity. Planning for high-impact, low probability events is not as high on the priority list of a company looking out first for shareholder interests. On the other hand, communities are more likely to be concerned.

Suburban community Lakeville in Minnesota, has been significantly motivated in its attempts to improve fast broadband access by a recognition that an epidemic or pandemic would leave the community paralyzed and its networks unable to cope with a many telecommuters. DSL and cable networks cannot handle a sudden surge in usage.

To some, this appears to be a surprise though the recent GAO Report rightly notes that full fiber networks are less susceptible to falling apart when they are needed most.

The above are just two reasons we need a full fiber infrastructure available to all Americans -- or at least those already reach by electricity and telephone. We know the private sector is not interested or even properly incented to build the networks we need, so it is long past time to focus on true solutions -- encouraging public ownership (structures that ensure the public interest is preserved) from coops to non-profits to muni networks.