What could you do with fat fiber?

by Doc Searls

Two years ago, Bob Frankston wrote Why Settle for Just 1%? while in the midst of his ramp-up as a Verizon FiOS customer. The question is still on the table. I'd like us to help answer it by re-phrasing the question: What could we, as Linux developers and users, do with fiber to our homes and businesses?

The answer should look like good business for the Verizons, RCNs, Comcasts and other fiber-deployers to be in. Let's help them imagine benefits to carrier incumbency other than doing the same old thing, only faster.

Here's the gist of what Bob wrote, two years ago already:

The fiber they are installing for FIOS is really a cable TV plant disguised as a network. It is a Passive Optical Network (PON) designed as a distribution system from a head end to the terminals at each home though it does have capacity to send data back. A single fiber has the capacity for gigabits of traffic.

There's so much capacity that they can simply allocate a portion of the capacity to emulating traditional Cable TV. The 15mbps they reserve for their Internet service is less than 1% of that capacity! The big lesson of the Internet and personal computer is that it makes more sense to just deploy simple IP connectivity and then use standard digital technology to convert the IP video streams to analog video when necessary. While I might forgive the Telcos for neglecting the old-line telephony business, it's harder to understand why they are deploying technologies that are obsolete before they are deployed.

My own new apartment, just one town over from Bob, has real competition in both fiber and copper to homes. There's fiber from RCN and Verizon, and copper co-ax from Comcast. (And possibly fiber as well, though I'm not clear on that.) After spending way too much time trying to plumb each company's BS for some indication of what they actually offer to customers who want real Internet service, it's clear that there's room for real differentiation here. I would think there's a huge opportunity for one of them to break loose and offer exactly what Bob, a helluva good customer (he co-invented the spreadsheet and helped home networking happen), is asking for. They could offer simple IP connectivity. I'd understand something less than all-you-can-eat (there can still be tragedies of the commons, even with fiber); but hell, let us eat something more than telephone, television and third-banana Internet service crippled to make room for the other two.

I have no beef with all of them offering television. That's low-hanging fruit, and bread and butter for as long as customers remain addicted to tubes (and now, flat panels with digital pictures compressed to the point where every solid color looks plaid). But why exclude better Internet service? That's not just the freaking future, guys. It's the freaking present, and has so much possibility it's hard to imagine it all. Why not partner with Google or Amazon for offsite backup services? Why not offer business services in the form of data warehousing, server farming and mirroring, and who knows what else?

Look at what Digisense is doing, just to route around the dumb and unhelpful asymmetric service that ISPs have been delivering for the duration. (Disclosure: I've consulted Digisense in the past.) Companies like these can be excellent business partners for ISPs and carriers — including municipalities and regional groups that are offering fiber to premises.

I'll bet the Linux community has some of the best answers to the question of what to do with the rest of that fiber capacity. I wish I could be at LinuxWorld next week to talk with people about it, because I think it's a huge and wide-open frontier for both business and technology. A lot of ya'll will be, though. Post some of your answers here.