Internet disconnect

By JEFF INGLIS  |  August 22, 2007

The trouble with this debate is that DSL is the wrong topic. We should be talking about fiber-optics technology, which transfers data over laser beams through glass wires. Because fiber-optic lines are capable of handling telephone, Internet, television, and other communications of the future, fiber optics is widely accepted as the immediate future of high-speed Internet connections. It is currently being rolled out by Verizon in major population centers around the country, including New York City, Boston, and Washington, DC. Whether the $2.7-billion Verizon-FairPoint deal goes through or not, the problem is that our state officials haven’t noticed that DSL is the wave of the past.

Lighting the world
Nationally, Verizon operates about two-thirds of the 1.3 million fiber connections to homes, according to the Fiber to the Home Council, a nationwide non-profit agency combining towns, utility companies, real-estate developers, and Internet service providers working to encourage the connection — by whomever is best equipped to do so — of fiber to every home in the US. (Today, just under two percent of US homes have fiber connections, the council says.)

Verizon’s fiber customers are primarily in large urban areas where population density (and therefore the number of prospective customers) is high enough to justify the cost of installing fiber. But many of the homes connected to fiber other than Verizon’s are, perhaps ironically, in rural places where town officials or smaller companies have decided to install it to boost economic development, according to FTTH Council president Joe Savage.

Seems like a good idea. “We’re the slowest in New England as far as download speeds,” says Peter McLaughlin, the business manager of the union representing Maine’s Verizon employees, which is a member of the national Communications Workers of America union’s research project on US Internet-access speeds. The union — looking to expand employment opportunities for its members — is lobbying to get companies to increase bandwidth, and to get government regulators to require universal Internet availability.

Through a variety of initiatives over many years, Maine has been trying to build rural economic development, including DSL-focused efforts to bring better Internet service to the hinterlands. The state is even looking to boost the number of telecommuting workers; Savage suggests fiber to the home may be faster than businesses’ office connections. But not even the few legislators who have commented to the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) about the FairPoint deal have mentioned fiber; one didn’t even mention DSL.

That’s too bad, because Maine actually has a lot of fiber already. Many Maine high schools and colleges are connected by a fiber-optic “ATM” network, which is mostly used for videoconferencing now. Maine has fiber-optic backbone running throughout the state, between telephone-company switching offices, in major connections by cable-television companies, and in downtown Portland and Lewiston-Auburn. Oxford Networks sells fiber to the home — in Maine. And Verizon is letting homes in a few Maine towns right on the New Hampshire border get fiber service from its Portsmouth center.

Vermont is in about the same place as Maine: Verizon provides no fiber to Vermont homes, though some communities have it, through either municipal initiatives (like Burlington’s) or small, independent companies. New Hampshire is better off, at least in the southern part of the state, where Verizon does offer fiber connections to homes in some areas.

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