Susan Crawford has published the right book at the right time. Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution -- And Why America Might Miss It, makes a compelling case for local organizing around better Internet networks upon which the future will be written.
The book revolves around several communities that will be familiar to anyone following community networks - cities like Chattanooga and Wilson, many of whom are members of Next Century Cities. Even people with only a casual interest in how to achieve the best Internet access will recognize some of the community names in Susan’s latest book.
As someone who has tracked these networks closer than most, several of the anecdotes were new to me and sufficiently powerful that I - literally - had to restrain myself from cheering while finishing the book on a flight. So it works well both for someone unfamiliar with the technology or movement as well as for those of us who have worked from within it for many years.
Susan dives right into the tech and marries it to the purpose:
Those hair-thin fiber strands, capable of carrying billions of phone calls simultaneously, plus advanced wireless communications that depend on that fiber extending into the last mile, will make possible virtually unlimited, cheap communications capacity wherever you are—which in turn will give rise to new businesses, new transport capabilities, new ways of managing our use of energy, new forms of education and health care, new ways of earning a living, and new forms of human connectedness. For these things to happen, both fiber and advanced wireless technologies need to be widely and competitively available. Without these basic pieces of open infrastructure in place, your country will be missing out on the future being lived and built elsewhere.
Speaking of purpose, this next paragraph is the type of prose that I think sets Susan apart from other writers on these issues.
There is a fundamental link between the school’s abundance of data connectivity and its nontraditional educational model. Upper-level students these days don’t want to be talked at, but they do want to learn. Teachers can no longer hide facts—because everything can be found online—but they are still needed as coaches and mentors. An enormous amount of learning and mentoring goes on at the STEM school every day.
I love that phrasing that teachers cannot hide facts. Not out of any anti-teacher bias but because it recognizes how the Internet so significantly complicates what it means to be a teacher. I was one of the few kids in my high school on the Internet regularly in the mid 90's and I remember how wide open, liberating, and yet intimidating it felt. Many teachers today must watch as some kids have unlimited access to unlimited information (for better and for worse) while others are squeezing in access from a park bench outside the library one night and a fast food restaurant the next if they are lucky enough to have the freedom and capacity to leave their unconnected home.
Then there are the anecdotes. We are just at the beginning of what unlimited Internet access can do. Susan artfully uses an example that many of us take for granted and that few of us would not link to better connectivity -- dental care. One of the many factors external to school that, when it goes wrong, seriously harms the capacity of any student to learn.
A one-way use of fiber is already in place in the small town of Independence, Oregon, about an hour south of Portland. It’s a “store-and-forward” teledentistry program, possible only because Independence built a gigabit fiber network ten years ago. ... Independence is a “poverty hot spot,” according to Linda Mann, director of community outreach for Capitol Dental Care. Few dental offices nearby will take Medicaid patients, and parents have to drive their children thirty miles for an office visit. As a result, many of the kids in Independence have never seen a dentist, and they all need preventive care. With a grant of $112,000 from the Oregon Office of Rural Health, the hygienists were able to go right into classrooms and cafeterias with a laptop, a portable X-ray unit, and a camera. Dentists in Portland could then see whether a particular child had a cavity; most of the children’s cavities could be treated at the school by the hygienists using “scoop-and-fill” procedures with fluoride-releasing fillings ... A major consequence of the pilot is that the local dentist offices that do take Medicaid are freed up to provide restorative care rather than routine prevention.
Again, some smart government investment making markets more efficient and dramatically improving quality of life for local residents.
We have recognized Wilson's muni fiber network Greenlight time and time again for its work to make the highest-quality Internet access available to low-income households. Susan reminds us how that changes lives.
Tiffany Cooper, an African American single mother of three teenage boys living in public housing in Wilson, could not wait to tell me how excited she is about having a city fiber connection to her unit. The $10 monthly price of her subscription is added to her rent bill. “It’s the best thing that could have happened to me,” she said. Cooper is working several jobs. Already a certified nursing assistant, she’s been able to work toward certificates in medical technology and phlebotomy, all using the fiber connection that was turned on a few months before I met her. “And I’m not going to stop,” she told me. Her next online program will certify her to read electrocardiograms (EKGs). Before Cooper got her fiber connection at home, she had to go to the library to do her weekly homework assignments; the community college used Blackboard course management software that could be accessed only with a high-speed connection. And getting to the library was hard: “I don’t have any transportation,” she pointed out. Now she can look up new programs and participate online, from home. The best part, the really important part about having this connection at home, is that her sons’ grades have improved. “I noticed it and I couldn’t believe it!” she told me excitedly. Before she got fiber, “I was getting phone calls from teachers, and letters, because there were a lot of things they could not do at school because we didn’t have access to the internet.” She was emphatic: “Their education comes before anything.” The fiber connection “is doing a whole lot of good in our home.”
Getting it Wrong
When looking at the stirring successes of Chattanooga and Wilson, among many others, these projects may start to seem obvious and even easy. But Chattanooga and Wilson's success came from years of preparation and elected officials that had done their homework. Susan includes a discussion of a community where the local officials just didn't prioritize solving the lack of modern Internet network investment.
At the time of my visit there, I had just read George Packer’s The Unwinding, a set of essays that focuses in part on the Piedmont region of North Carolina, where Greensboro is located, and how the collapse of the textile industry here affected people's lives. I wanted to be able to report that Greensboro’s region was raising itself up in part by focusing on fiber. The story I found did not fit my narrative plan. Instead, it illustrates what can happen in places where both the state government and local inertia, intentionally or accidentally, support the incumbent-controlled status quo.
You can listen to an interview I did with Susan in 2017 when she was bullish on Greensboro or read the transcript of our podcast. The optimism from that project evaporated in the absence of local leadership... which itself was hamstrung by state policy written by the big cable monopoly to prevent any local Internet choice threatening their revenues.
But no one seemed willing to make city money available for any of this. The city council and mayor knew about the projects but weren’t sure whether to support them. “This is more like a grassroots initiative,” Nickles said. She pulled together a draft summary of all the benefits of her proposed pilot projects for her city council. She got the council’s support. In April 2017, Greensboro’s city council approved Nickles’s pilot project. The grand aspiration of leasing dark fiber throughout the city was substantially narrowed: now the plan was to wire up a single Family Success Center that would serve as a hub for high-speed Wi-Fi in one low-income neighborhood.
A key lesson of Susan's book is that local leadership matters. From elected officials, city staff, business leaders, and local engaged citizens. These projects are very challenging, from the technology to the politics to the economics. Communities need strong bonds to build successful networks.
Fittingly, Susan goes back to electricity for parallels, reminding us of some of the details most have forgotten. Electrification wasn't just rural cooperatives distributing power created by new federal dams. It was building a market for devices by extending credit to low-income households that would not have adopted that new technology without assistance. This is market-building infrastructure investment policy at its best.
The federal effort was not limited to rural areas: the Roosevelt administration expanded consumer credit to low-income houses to advance electrical modernization. With no down payment, homeowners could buy a refrigerator using low-interest loans for as little as three dollars a month—thus bringing refrigeration, the essential ingredient of a modern kitchen, into the lives of millions. The private utilities had thought of their market as consisting only of the one-fifth of American households that were already modernized, but the use of electricity ballooned. Where the average early 1920s household had been using 30 kilowatt-hours or less each month, by 1950 most households had modern electrical services and were using more than 150 kilowatt-hours monthly.
The same was true in Chattanooga: in 1933, nine out of ten families didn’t have electricity. “There was not much of a middle class in Chattanooga,” Jim Ingraham of EPB told me. The rich families had electric refrigerators, but if you were a factory worker you were still lighting your house with oil or kerosene. Six months after EPB was chartered in 1935, as a public distributor of electricity with a mission to keep prices low and act like a utility (following the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority as a generator of electricity in 1933), rates came down enormously, and “everyone in our 600-square-mile service area had signed up for electricity,” Ingraham said. Everyone had it: all the factory workers, all the African Americans. “We offered refrigerators out of our office,” he said, “and we had a kitchen. We showed people, here’s what these appliances can do for you.”
That government policy to build these markets for electricity wasn't popular with everyone - especially the companies that ultimately gained tremendously from it as electricity went from novelty to omnipresent in modern life. Much like the famous Hollywood effort to kill the VCR because it would be the end of the entertainment industry, the big monopolies fought to preserve the status quo rather than recognize how it could benefit from policies to broadly improve access to modern technology.
But it’s not easy: the incumbents go after them systematically, hiring academics and “experts” to attack these city planners as socialistic and mounting epic campaigns in state legislatures to block cities with legislation. Meanwhile, rural areas are unconnected and out of touch. The only thing we are missing is widespread public recognition of the depth and significance of the last-mile fiber problem—and either a young LBJ or a more seasoned FDR to address it.
I finished this book reinvigorated. We are seeing record numbers of cities study, build, and expand networks. Communities are iterating on approaches across the country. We are seeing new opportunities in municipal finance. Whether motivated by a lack of access or frustration with existing services, this book provides the background and motivation for communities to restore their self-determination over their economic future and a key aspect of quality of life in the modern era.
Susan recently appeared WGBH Boston to discuss her book:
Image of Susan Crawford by Joi [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.