Our Connectivity Problem Requires a Powerful and Efficient Solution: Shared, Multi-purpose Infrastructure

We cannot afford to be inefficient as we deliver affordable and reliable connections to communities. And that means embracing open access, shared fiber infrastructure.

When we started Underline a year ago, we had a clear inertia-smashing mission: move beyond the status quo to  ensure the vibrancy of our nation through building intelligent community infrastructure. Now, nine months into a global pandemic, the necessity of our mission to connect communities has become the focus of long-overdue national concern. COVID-19 has made painfully clear the scale of our national connectivity problem and the urgency with which we must deploy solutions. It’s also given us, as a nation and as a company, the space to think creatively about the right solution: the deployment of open access, shared fiber infrastructure. 

The events of this year have forced us, globally, to consider the nature of connection: what’s the value of in-person connections? Can we replace face-to-face connections with remote ones? What do we need for functional and robust virtual connections? With these questions, all of our day-to-day activities—education, work, commerce, entertainment, and the nature of healthcare—have been turned upside down and inside out. The current situation has also forced us to look—in some respects for the first time—squarely in the face of the inequity that exists in our nation. We learned again what we knew all along: ultra fast connectivity is a social determinant of health, education, work, and economic security. The impact of COVID-19 has made it impossible to look away from this truth.

By engaging with these complex questions, we have the chance to rethink the way we learn, work, stay healthy, and commune. We have the chance—and the responsibility—to rethink how we define, design, and build vibrant, flourishing, and equitable communities for current and future generations.

Emerging economic and social trends that were expected to take a decade to come to fruition have now arrived. Full remote work (true “Work from Anywhere”) and distributed access to high-quality healthcare are just two examples where immediate adoption is now essential for any viable community. And the hard truth is that successful adoption is predicated on the existence of reliable, accessible, and affordable fiber internet connections.

As a nation, we face $5-8 Trillion of cumulative deferred capital expenditure for all of our critical infrastructure. Building fiber internet connections to every home, student, and business owner is but one part of this mammoth undertaking. At this juncture, we cannot afford to be inefficient with our financial resources and continue to engage in wasteful, duplicative spending. The status quo “solutions” where the government showers money over a complex problem perpetuating the incumbent model, or where the incumbent internet providers (modern day ma bells) each build their own infrastructure, are part of the reason we are in this position. It must stop here. This means embracing the open access model of shared fiber infrastructure. 

To illustrate this point: UPS, FedEx, public bus systems, and the local fire service, do not each build their own roads within a single community. That would be absurd. However, this absurd picture is the reality of our information infrastructure. Our roads are shared by every mail or package carrier to deliver goods, and they are also open for other activities: sending a firetruck to an emergency, driving to the park, taking the bus to the supermarket, and even riding a bike. Our high speed data routes must be similarly efficient and multi-purpose.

Multi-purpose, open access fiber networks are equivalent to our “open access” roads. As the necessity of connectivity continues to extend far beyond sending email and online shopping—to virtual learning, remote work, distributed healthcare, new wireless solutions (e.g., 5G) and resilient modernized infrastructure—open access fiber networks are the critical and most efficient foundation.

Ultra-fast and affordable internet, delivered in a socially equitable manner, is just table stakes. If we want everything else that’s necessary for healthy communities, open access fiber is the path forward. 

Sadly, our culture today seems characterized by rancor and a counterproductive “either / or” ethos. This subject, however, is one we should all be able to agree on. We can and must efficiently build new information infrastructure as the foundation for resilient, flourishing communities to enjoy new economic opportunities, modernize other critical community infrastructure, and form a  pathway to responsible energy creation and secure smart grid technology. While we’re at it, we can and must reject the model of socio-demographically selective access to information: we can and must close the digital divide so that all of our children have access to a good education and an opportunity to participate in the American system. Fiber networks, designed as open access, multi-purpose infrastructure, are the predicate for this future we must build. There’s much we can continue to debate; ensuring the vibrancy of our nation through building intelligent community infrastructure, in a socially equitable and financially efficient manner, should not be one such debatable topic. The table stakes are too high already.

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