The Truth About Fiber-Optics

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Fiber-optic cables aren't exactly new. Part of the reason for the 2001 recession was a tech crash caused by excessive buildout of fiber, most of which remained "dark" for years. Fiber has been used for Internet backbones as well as long-distance trunks in the PSTN, but only recently has the idea of extending fiber directly to the home become pervasive. I won't give an overview of fiber here, so for some history and details about how fiber-optic communications works, you can check out Broadband Now.

Until recently, I'd been fairly ambivalent about fiber-optics. Fiber is much faster than cable or DSL Internet, but it's much more expensive. The cost of fiber-optic cable and connectors is exorbitant: which is why computers still have RJ45 (Ethernet over twisted pair) jacks in the back, not fiber-optic connectors. Unshielded copper twisted-pair wiring (sometimes erroneously referred to as Ethernet cabling, if it happens to be Cat5 or better; "Ethernet" cables were originally coaxial cable, not twisted-pair) has been the norm for decades and still dominates, both in landline telephony and computer networking.

Like most people, my exposure to fiber-optic cables for the most part had been with regards to speed. Fiber-optic cables use light, not electrical signals, to transmit information. This is why they are often so desirable: extremely fast, practically immune to interference. So why aren't they used everywhere, specifically in within the "last mile" and in homes and business? Well, like I said, they're expensive, more fragile, and not as consumer-friendly. If you've ever seen a fiber-optic cable in person, you've probably seen a WARNING about lasers and possible eye damage if the cable is broken. Twisted-pair cables, on the other hand, are relatively safe. If you have electrical contact with the wire in a phone line and the telephone rings, the ringing current could deliver a jarring electrical shock to you, but nothing life-threatening (remember, even if you don't have traditional telephones with bell ringers (1 REN each; an electronic telephone is about 0.1 REN), the telephone company still puts 5 REN of ringing voltage on the line, enough to ring 5 standard telephones).

For most people, the actual need for fiber-optics cannot justify the enormous costs. Today, most residential and business Internet connections are one of three types: dial-up, digital subscriber line (DSL), or cable. Dial-up and DSL both use your telephone line and "cable" uses the coaxial cable coming into a building — originally meant, and still used — for Cable TV. Dial-up is the slowest and oldest technology, but most people born in the last millenium probably originally got online using dial-up. Today, dial-up has declined in favor of broadband (high-speed) Internet connections, such as DSL or cable, but an estimated 3 million Americans are still using dial-up, either to save money by avoiding paying for a dedicated Internet connection, or because broadband Internet is not available in their area. Some providers now even often a certain number of minutes of "free" dial-up minutes per month, since the connection speed is too aggrivating for many people. Considering that we were using 300bps acoustic coupler modems in the early 1980s, and had 56kbps (56,000bps) "high-speed" direct-connection dial-up modems by the late 1990s, it was once a blazing fast avenue of communication. Broadband, on the other hand, has historically been defined as the speed of a T1 connection, 1.544 Mbps (1,544,000bps). Today, speeds of 25 Mbps (25,000,000bps) or more are common.

As far as broadband technology goes, DSL and cable have been rivals for years. You've perhaps heard the telephone companies and the cable TV companies battling each other in ads over which service is better. While some people tend to think cable is better, the truth is more complex. DSL works by using frequencies in your phone line unused for voice communications. However, DSL filters are often required for any analog devices (i.e. analog modems, telephones, fax machines, etc.) on a phone line. Cable connections involve slightly less hassle.

The question of speed is not clear-cut either. Download speeds and upload speeds are two different animals. It's pretty safe to say the average download speed with cable is generally faster than what a DSL subscriber would experience, and download speed is what tends to matter to most consumers. DSL is more complicated. Most DSL is ADSL, or asymmetric DSL, which, like cable, means the download speed is faster than the upload speed. SDSL (symmetric DSL) is less common and offers an upload speed identical to the download speed, more suited for those who tend to produce rather than consume large amounts of Internet content.

Another difference between DSL and cable is that DSL is dedicated to your connection whereas cable is not. Cable was originally used for cable TV exclusively (today, bandwidth is split between TV and Internet traffic) and cables were rarely run exclusively to a single residence. Instead, it's more likely that you share your cable connection with your neighbors, perhaps everyone on your street. That means your Internet bandwidth is shared too. Cable users often experience degraded speed during peak hours, when all their neighbors are surfing the web too. Contrast that with a DSL connection, which, like your telephone line, is solely dedicated to YOU.

We will sum this up nicely by saying that cable connections often have a faster average speed than DSL, but the range of a cable connection is much larger (since bandwidth is shared, and thus, the bandwidth available to you is often unpredictable) and, consequently, cable connection speeds have a much larger range, and so, it's certainly possible that DSL users, at times, may experience faster speeds than cable users, particularly during peak hours.

That being said, even dial-up has its advantages. If you have a laptop with a charged battery and internal modem, you can still go online in a power outage (remember, landlines work in power outages since they get their power from the central office). You'd be browsing at 56kbps, max, but that's probably preferrable to the 0bps of no connection at all.

So, back to fiber. That was a long aside, but it was necessary to get us all on the same page. Fiber-optics, clearly, are also high-speed broadband, like DSL and cable, but fundamentally different. Unlike DSL and cable, which extend directly into millions of homes, fiber has traditionally only been used as a "backbone" technology, and only recently has it been coming to some homes and business. Verizon's "FiOS" is one such program that brings fiber Internet directly to residences.

Most people who care about fiber-optics do so because of the crazy fast Internet speeds that fiber promises. Perfectly understandable. Recently, I've been hearing about fiber more as the race for 5G has begun (if you don't know what 5G is, you can read about its technical stupidity and health consequences). Long story short, 5G would require millions of new "small" cell towers every few homes because the frequencies are much higher than traditional cell antenna frequencies and can't travel very far. The wireless industry is currently working hard to prevent local municipalities from being able to say no to any of these installations and prevent homeowners from objecting to millimeter-frequency antennas from being installed right outside their home. The "justification" for 5G is it will support much higher speeds than 4G cellular connections have, essential for the "Internet of Things" and streaming video. Any fool, of course, will realize that most Internet browsing is done through residential and business fixed Internet connections, such as DSL or broadband. Even a wireless device connected to a Wi-Fi access point is using a fixed Internet connection, since a wireless access point simply connects a device to the wired network, which gets its Internet access from a DSL or cable (or, perhaps, fiber) modem. 5G would only be used by devices using "cellular data". In other words, it has absolutely no relevance to the vast majority of Internet traffic.

The proposed solution by some activists has been fiber-optics. On the surface, this seems to be a good proposal. Fiber-optic connections are faster than 5G, safer than 5G, and more reliable than 5G. They do not carry the health consequences that 5G would be further irradiating millions of Americans.

Unfortunately, the activists have it wrong. Again, 5G would only be used by devices using "cellular data". Fiber-optics are fixed Internet, 5G is not. There is no crossover between 5G and fiber-optics. 5G is designed to serve cellular devices, fiber-optic broadband connections are designed to service residences and businesses, not cellular connectivity, which is the entire point of 5G. This is nothing new. Most people with smartphones use their fixed Internet connection at home (most likely by using Wi-Fi) and use cellular data on the go. Of course, fixed connections are always preferred over cellular connections, since broadband connections are much faster and typically unmetered. This is why you always see people "asking for Wi-Fi" (even though that's incorrect, see this post) when they're in a building. It's why many businesses, hotels, etc. choose to use "Free Wi-Fi" as a selling point, even though I and many people are more enticed by "No Wi-Fi"… but that's another story.

So for one thing, fiber-optic to the home would not alleviate the alleged need for 5G. Of course, this is not to say that 5G is necessary. Technical experts and scientists around the world have universally denounced 5G as destructive and unnecessary, and it is. But proposing fiber-optics to the home would not make 5G go away; in fact, it could make it come faster!

Arthur Firstenberg homed in on this in his recent August 12th interview on all things 5G. During the interview, he said something that would probably startle many health activists:

Contrary to what some people are saying, the solution is not fiber-optic cable. Many people would like to think that if we only connected up every house and every business in the world to fiber-optic cable, we could all have super-fast Internet, without wireless. What people do not know is that the wireless industry itself is right now spending $150 billion laying fiber-optic cable absolutely everywhere on the planet. It is the only way they are going to have fast enough speeds for 5G… They want to tear out all existing copper wire, all existing coaxial cable, and all the old lower-speed fiber-optic cable and replace it all with super high-speed fiber-optic trunks… If you advocate for high-speed fiber, you are advocating for 5G. (18:53 to 20:18)

Even I was caught by surprise. Fiber is necessary for 5G? More fiber would expedite 5G? That by enough is enough for me to be against fiber-optics. I've been against fiber-optic in telecommunications for awhile, despite its efficiency — yes, I'm one of those phone phreaks that hated when digital T-carrier started replacing analog L-carrier (which used coaxial cable) for long-distance telephone calls, back in the 1970s and 1980s. Of course, I wasn't around then, so I never personally heard L-carrier noise or MF digits before a long-distance call went through, but I certainly would've liked to.

Now, I have nothing against fiber-optic being used as the backbone of the Internet. It already is, and my opinion wouldn't change that anyways. The Internet could not support today's massive consumption and production without fiber. But most consumers don't think about, preferring to think of the Internet as some nonexistent "cloud in the sky". Most people think fiber is new, only because until recently it has been where few people have seen it — connecting Internet Service Providers, in datacenters, lining the ocean floor in submarine cables.

However, many people are arguing now that fiber-optic cabling should extend all the way to the home, which would require millions of dollars of further buildout of the nation's fiber infrastructure. Until recently, I couldn't have cared much either way, whether or not Fiber to the Home was ever realized, but because of what's come to light recently, I am now solidly against the proposed massive buildout of, what is essentially, fiber to the modem.

There are 3 primary reasons for this, and Arthur hit two of them in his interview. Let me elaborate on each of them:

  1. Fiber-optics are necessary for 5G. Without fiber, a dense 5G network would not be possible. Antennas would be needed every block, perhaps every half-block, but the antennas themselves don't magically communicate with the rest of the Internet and with the mobile phone provider. Fiber is touted by activists as a response to legislators considering 5G, with the assumption that somethingneeds to be proposed for their perspective to be viable, but that's just not true. The answer to the world's problems is not always more technology. Fiber-optic cable would be necessary to support the millions of 5G antennas that would be built, if the 5G network ever becomes reality (let's hope it doesn't). But like Arthur said, if you support fiber-optics, you are supporting 5G. Doing nothing, not installing fiber-optic cabling, is better than getting 5G. In a hypercapitalist economy where everything is imported from China, this doesn't sit well with economists, who always like the idea of building something new, even if it's unnecessary. The right answer is to say no to 5G, period, not advocate for something else we don't need either as the alternative. We've had high-speed Internet access for years without 5G or fiber to the home.
  2. Internet speeds are a never-ending death spiral. A great introductory article to this concept is Why We Need a Speed Limit for the Internet. If you didn't have the perspective about connectivity speeds before, hopefully by reading the paragraph with all the bps acronyms above, you do now. Perhaps you've never known a world without broadband Internet. Perhaps you remember when telegrams were, for the masses, the fastest way to send a message to someone (this wasn't actually that long ago, as recently as ~45 years or so). Whatever the case, the increases in computing and connectivity are undeniable. Moore's Law pertains to processing power, but could easily be applied to electronic connectivity speeds. Dial-up connections first brought people online in 1995 (people were connected using BBSs since 1978, but BBSs were not packet-switched, they were direct dial-in, so BBSing was "pre-Internet" electronic communication; indeed, dial-up Internet quickly killed BBSs in 1995). If we add in modem connections before the Internet, we can go back further. From 300bps, to 1200bps, to 2400bps... to 9600bps and 14,400bps... each generation of modems was faster than its predecessor. When 56kbps dial-up connections were mainstream, they were considered blazing fast. Why isn't that the case today? It's because the World Wide Web has grown along with the average Internet connection speed . According to D-Lib Magazine, n 2002, the average webpage was between 10 and 20 KB in size. WebsiteOptimization.com offers slightly different information, but nothing drastically different. A webpage in 1995 was just 14.1 KB on average. If you were using a 56kbps modem, a webpage would have loaded in about 2 seconds (there are 8 bits in 1 byte). Compare that to someone using an acoustic coupler, which can only support 300bps. With the enormous overhead of TCP-IP used on the Internet that was not present during the BBS era, it would take minutes to load the same page. In comparison, dial-up Internet with the highest-speed analog modem (56kbps) is blazing fast.
    Fast forward a few years. In 2002, a webpage was about 94 KB. As recently as 2008, a webpage was 312KB. Okay, so it would no longer take a second or two for dial-up users, but 10 or 15 seconds of waiting would have been enough. But then, something happened. The very next year, in 2009, webpages reached over 500 KB. By 2012, the size had grown more than 50%, to almost 800 KB, and by 2013, webpages were now, on average, over 1 MB!
    For reference, this webpage is 44 KB. That's smaller than the average webpage was in 2002! But do you feel you're missing out on anything, without all the frills of modern bloated websites? To be fair, it's mostly text with minimal CSS and JavaScript. Most webpages are mostly JavaScript and CSS, with little actual HTML; this website is more basic: mostly HTML, some CSS, and very little JavaScript. We don't believe in unnecessarily burdening our viewers. (For an even more minimalist browsing experience, you can check out our Analog Files website, optimized for extremely slow web connections.)
    Today, the vast majority of webpages would require multiple floppy disks to store! (Floppy disks can store 1.44MB, if you've forgotten). What happened?
    Webpage bloat is what happened. Flashy animations, videos, graphics, and most of all, advertisements. The site boston.com is 16.3 MB with advertisements, "just" 3.5 MB without. Those with broadband Internet connections will notice a slight delay, but dial-up users would have to wait for the better part of an hour to see that page. In short, the Internet, contrary to how it was conceived, is growing more and more inaccessible to more and more people. Webpages continue to grow in size, falsely assuming that the average Internet connection speed is representative of all of the web's users. But if 3 million people are still using dial-up, either by choice or necessity, is it fair to tell them that as the average Internet connection speed continues to grow, they will be left in the dust? More important and relevant than net neutrality, "Internet bloat" is becoming a serious barrier to accessible Internet access today.
    Internet speeds and webpage sizes appear to be caught up in a death spiral. Webpages grow in size because of faster Internet connections available, Internet connections continue to grow because websites grow larger and larger. The idea that webpages can continue to grow infinitely in size is a false and dangerous one. As is evident by the enormous popularity of adblockers these days, most consumers aren't interested in a flashy World Wide Web with all the bells and whistles it can support. They just want the content that they want, and nothing else.
    Because of mobile devices and the slow speed of cellular data connections, some websites have begun to optimize for slower connections. But only a little bit, and not in a good way. If a website detects a desktop, for instance, it may serve up the full webpage to that computer, regardless of the connection speed it may be on, even though it's certainly more variable than a device served the mobile version of a website. Further, "mobile sites" are stripped down versions of "full websites" that often make content even more inaccessible than it was before. In short, there is a new meaning to the "Internet is broken" today. Fundamentally, there is a major accessibility issue with regards to Internet access. Many people today are struggling to get online, even to check email, whereas this wasn't the case just 10 or 15 years ago. Many mainstream websites have become so bogged down they fail to load properly or are otherwise inaccessible. Adblockers are now necessary to get rid of the bloat websites have simply because they assume everyone has the connection speed to support that bloat. The Internet is more inaccessible today than it was a decade ago, and it continues to grow more and more inaccessible. Even for those with high speed broadband, webpage bloat is annoying at best, excruciating at worst. Bandwith is unnecessarily wasted for useless content that may just end up getting blocked by an adblocker anyways, or otherwise ignored by our eyes, or "X"ed by our mice.
    According to SpeedCurve, almost 16% of webpages today are 4 MB or greater in size. Often, the same content can be presented in far under 1 MB's worth of space. 4 MB would take several minutes for someone on dial-up to load. Forget about streaming video, even loading basic webpages that would've loaded fine 15 years ago is now problematic. And all this because of higher and higher Internet speeds for solely that sake.
    Fiber will only promote even higher speeds for no real purpose, and webpage bloat will grow accordingly. It is the 21st century example of "progress for the sake progress". The vast majority of consumers do not need speeds higher than those supported by today's high speed broadband connections, and faster Internet connections are not necessary. There is no real need for the average consumer to have a 1Gbps fiber connection. There just isn't. Certainly, this is America, and if someone wants a 1 Gbps connection, that's his business. But advocating that everyone have a high-speed fiber connection (and even worse, that such infrastructure should be nationalized, as is advocated by the authors of the "Re-Inventing Wires" report) is contrary to every principle that the World Wide Web and the Internet were created upon. Here's an idea: instead of necessitating faster and faster Internet speeds to accomodate more and more web bloat but the same amount of "useful" content, why not reduce or eliminate web bloat so that more useful content can traverse the same connections without never-ending "upgrades" to our Internet connections?
  3. Fiber-optics would take over. If you replace "fiber-optics" with "aliens", we would have a panic on our hands, but leaving it as such is reason enough to do so. As Arthur mentioned in interview, universal access to fiber-optic connections would allow telephone companies to discontinue analog copper telephone service (otherwise known as POTS, or Plain Old Telephone Service), effectively migrating everyone to digital phone service and VoIP, neither of which would work in a power outage. Landlines work in power outages, and have ever since common battery was used in central offices in the late 1800s. Copper is an electrical medium and all the power to power your telephones is delivered over the same wires that ring your phone and provide the voice path. Fiber is not electrical and cannot support power to your premises. Ironically, VoIP phones are sort of like analog phones in that many utilize Power over Ethernet (PoE), which is why many VoIP telephone sets don't have a separate power source. They get all of their power over the network cable, just like traditional telephones get their power from the phone line. The difference is VoIP phones are connected to some sort of switch or modem on-premises, not to a central office that could be miles away, as is the case with landlines. Some telephone companies have begun moving digitization of voice closer to homes, effectively putting mini-exchanges on the side of the road by neighborhoods that function as concentrators, which don't benefit from the common battery at the central office which would power phone lines indefinitely, if the trunks back to the CO are digital and non-copper, as is usually the case.
    There isn't as much of a reason to protest the elimination of coaxial cable. Analog TV in the U.S. has been dead for a decade now, and there wouldn't be any real difference to the TV experience delivered by fiber versus coaxial cable. Functionally, there's no difference. Replacing twisted-pair copper cabling, however, would have enormous ramifications for society at large. Doing so would plunge us back into the 1880s, into an era when phones had local battery instead of common battery. Bell engineers quickly realized common battery was better and more efficient (not to mention less costly) than local battery. Today, some telecom giants are already pressing the FCC to discontinue traditional landline service, the most reliable means of communication currently in existence. Doing so would, almost a century and a half later, transition us from common battery back into the dark ages of local battery. The reason could be economic: a switch to digital phone service pushes the burden of powering telephones from the phone company to the consumer, who is highly unlikely to have the means to power their house indefinitely in a diaster, unlike the telephone company's central offices.
    Regardless of what others may say, this isn't about analog versus digital. Voice calls are digitized anywhere in the PSTN today. The principal switches most landlines are served by today in North America are the Western Electric No. 5ESS (now owned by Lucent) and the Nortel DMS-100. Both have been in use since the late 1970s and early 1980s. Hence, most landline switches have been in continuous operation today for three or four decades. Thanks to the Bell System Breakup, Western Electric is now defunct (it now makes vacuum tube luxury radios, but it's not owned by AT&T Corp., which itself is owned by SBC d/b/a AT&T Inc.) and replacement parts are no longer being manufactured. As landline switches near their end of life, the availability of fiber-optic infrastructure to most homes would GUARANTEE the elimination of traditional landline service. The reliability and durability of the landline network in emergencies and disasters has been because of the twisted-pair copper wiring connecting homes and small businesses to the PSTN. (Larger businesses that still have landlines and not VoIP generally have T1 connections to the PSTN, not analog connections). In Hurricane Sandy, hundreds of people who had given up their landline flocked to payphones. Some cities like New York have phased out many payphones for Internet kiosks. Everywhere, the trend is to replace centralized, reliable infrastructure with decentralized infrastructure that is not reliable, lower quality, and not immune to disasters. If landlines go away, in a major disaster, we would all be left in the dark, literally and figuratively.
    There is no technical reason why fiber and copper could not coexist. But in the deregulated telecom era, there is no reason to expect that will continue to be the case. Even without fiber, telecom companies have been neglecting fiber. Verizon in particular has been called out. Not only do they neglect their copper plant, but whenever a customer requests FiOS, their fiber Internet offering, Verizon rips out all the copper infrastructure to the customer's home, slowly eliminating the copper landline network. Verizon is already dismantling copper as they install fiber Is it a far stretch to assume that other providers will soon do the same? Many customers unsatisfied with the quality and reliability of fiber phone service have requested Verizon to switch them back to POTS, but to no avail. Imagine learning your phone company ripped out your copper without your knowing and you won't be able to go back to your landline. People should have a choice about whether they would like a landline in their home or not. Fiber will take away that choice.
    It's worth noting that this conundrum is due in large part to the effects of the Bell System Divestiture in 1984, which has been denounced by telephone enthusiasts and any reputable telecom experts. The cost of phone service increased 40% after Ma Bell was broken up and a new era of low-quality neglection began. Consumers have suffered the most. Ironically, so has the government: the Justice Department was the one prosecuting AT&T, and the Department of Defense and the Pentagon went to AT&T's defense. Unfortunately, the Justice Department didn't listen, and didn't drop the antitrust suit, as they should have. For ill-informed consumers and economists who naively believe that all monopolies are bad, it may come as quite as a shock, but had the Bell System Divestiture not occured, and telephone service remained a monopoly, we would not be dealing with so many problems today.

Those are the three big reasons why fiber should be opposed. One thing I've kind of glossed over is the fact that fiber is being touted as the answer to a lack of bandwidth today, even with DSL and cable. However, the truth is fiber is not necessary for consumers to get even faster Internet connections, should they want them. Techwalla sums up some facts about high speed broadband quite nicely:

Dial-up connections connect to the Internet via your phone line. Once connected, dial-up connections allow speeds of about 56 kilobytes per second (kbps). One thousand kilobytes equals 1 megabyte (MB), and a typical digital song file usually equals about 3 to 5 MB. Downloading common music files takes a long time via dial-up, probably more than two minutes. DSL and cable connections operate much faster. They allow speeds ranging from 5 megabytes per second (mbps) to 750 mbps. Medium-speed DSL connections start at 128 mbps. High-speed DSL reaches speeds of up to 750 mbps. Cable and satellite connections also provide high-speed internet connectivity. Cable connections reach speeds of up to 30,000 mbps. Satellite connections reach speeds of 2,500 mbps.

750mbps DSL? 30Gbps cable? That's way faster than many of the speeds being touted in fiber offerings today! Fiber isn't even necessary in the first place to push the limits of Internet speeds. We can simply improve the DSL and cable connections we already have. A foreign concept to a throwaway, planned obsolesence, made in China, post-Divestiture society, perhaps, but valid nonetheless.


I will conclude with a few words about the "Re-Inventing Wires" report that I mentioned earlier. I heard about this in February before the "Re-Inventing Wires" meeting of some sort was scheduled to occur. At the time, I read the description of the event and was immediately horrified. Here were two unsettling things from the description, with my response to them at the time:

  • The Telecommunications Act of 1996 has resulted in the reconsolidation of communications monopoly providers dominated now by a “triopoly” that has come to be even more limiting and detrimental than the original AT&T Bell System monopoly. The original AT&T Bell System monopoly was NOT detrimental or limiting. They are THE REASON we have computers, telephones, the Internet, etc. The Bell System Divestiture (Breakup of the Bell System) was the worst thing ever to happen in telecommunications history, period. Far worse than Telecom Act of 1996. It was never about prices or innovation. A book on this tragic event called "The Rape Of Ma Bell" is blunt about the truth: Uncle Sam raped Ma Ball. Read more about this in a previous post: Monopoly Isn't Always A Bad Thing
  • The ideal model for a national fiber system is fiber-to-the-curb (FTTC) or fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) whereby a fiber terminates on a gateway modem box at the curb or premises where digital data is then converted to Ethernet over copper wire. This gateway can efficiently separate out and deliver TV, voice telephone and Internet service within the home. This is promoting Voice over IP telephone. This would DO AWAY with your landline! Phone service delivered over the Internet is not reliable, not secure, and WILL NOT WORK IN A POWER OUTAGE! The industry's plan is to cut landlines and move to completely Internet-based phone service. We must resist ANY AND ALL attempts to move away from analog, copper phone service. Fiber does not have any role anywhere in the PSTN local loop (it's fine for long distance trunks, as that doesn't concern common battery or reliability). Copper is also less energy-intensive than fiber (important if you care about climate change). Fiber would require on-premises equipment, wasting even more electricity.

I finished with some overall critique of the event: The name itself sounds suspicious - Re-Inventing Wires: The Future of Landlines & Networks - Landlines DO NOT need to be reinvented. They are already "perfect" as can be. Most landlines in the U.S. have been on No. 5ESSs or DMS100s that were designed in 1979 or 1980. There is no real "reason" to change that now. Attempts to "upgrade" landlines should be resisted just as much as attempts to "upgrade" wireless broadband. VoIP is from "fake phone companies". "Real phone companies" provide analog local loops over copper - they are the incumbent local exchange carriers (as opposed to CLECs).

Recently, I read the actual 156 page PDF report, which can be found on the Electromagnetic Health website. I started reading and thought it would be promising, but I've not been able to get over a few things that make the report an extremely misleading and industry-biased one:

Here's a quote from page 14, the first mention of the "Bell System". Is it a positive mention, thanks for inventing the telephone, the transistor, the laser, direct distance dialing, or any other one of Bell Labs' numerous thousands of patented inventions? Nope:

Deregulation led to the reconsolidation of communications monopoly providers dominated by a triopoly that has come to be more limiting and detrimental than the original AT&T Bell System monopoly that was broken up in the mid-1980s.

It's hard to take the authors of this report seriously, even if the head author has a PhD and I don't. What I do have that the authors don't is an extensive history in the Bell System, including how it operated and all the highs and lows of that era. The Bell System wasn't perfect. Some people hated Ma Bell. But actively condemning it and calling it "detrimental" is an insult not only to the best telephone network that ever was, but also to knowledge itself. In an era of fake news, it's even more disturbing. I can only conclude it is the result of the failure of the report's authors to do their own due diligence. The report is a bit socialist in that it advocates for nationalized telecommunications infrastructure. I would personally oppose that, but the authors are entitled to their opinion. However, Tim Schoechle, did you know that the Bell System sold phone service at a loss to consumers? People think of the high long-distance rates and blame Ma Bell and thank MCI, their benefactor, but they don't know the history. The Bell System, ever since Theodore Vail in the early 1900s announced his vision for "one universal system", has prioritized connecting Americans. AT&T, the head of the Bell System from 1899 until 1984, was the world's largest corporation with over 1 million employees, and was certainly very profitable, but monopoly + pursuit of profit did not produce what economists universally do in classrooms today. The Bell System valued quality. Western Electric telephones are still in excellent condition all over the country. My 1957 rotary telephone offers much better call quality than your cell phone, thank you very much. The Bell System put the customer first. They worked extremely hard to offer the best customer experience. Telephones were made to reduce service calls, which were free to customers, just like directory assistance used to be (these are all Bell System relics we no longer enjoy today). The Bell System believed in the greater good, including offering phone service to those who otherwise wouldn't have bought it. The Bell System took a loss on providing telephone service to consumers, but made it up on inflated long-distance rates, which were generally paid by businesses. That sounds benevolent, not malicious.

Apart from further statements in the report that imply a possible migration from copper to fiber for phone service, the authors' attacks on the Bell System thoroughly discredit the report. Here's another statement from page 39:

The Bell System breakup (or divestiture)—although initially successful, at least for a while

Excuse me? Who said the Bell System breakup was successful? Recall that I said that the cost of phone service went up 40% after Divestiture. Consumers suddenly found themselves in a world of chaos and confusion. AT&T's computer business failed, which is why the computer on your desk doesn't say "AT&T" on it. The military lost its centralized telephone network serviced by one Bell System, and had to deal with seven different regional Bell Operating Companies, plus Bellcore. Long distance bills now arrived separately from local telephone service bills. If you call an AT&T technician today, chances are the guy who comes out will be completeley clueness. There's no training or job security. People worked in the Bell System for 40 or 50 years. You could start out as a lineman and end up the executive of one of the Bell System's 22 local phone companies. It was a career.

What people usually hear about MCI is that MCI was trying to provide lower-cost long-distance service than AT&T and that AT&T tried to undermine them, by reportedly sometimes discontinuing MCI's service and doing everything they could to prevent competition. That doesn't sound so good. But the truth is that MCI was simply skimming the cream on the surface while leaving AT&T to do the dirty work that it was obligated by law too. AT&T was heavily regulated while MCI was not. MCI could setup microwave towers across the country and provide long-distance service, using local access numbers, at a fraction of the cost of AT&T. But AT&T didn't have the option of lowering their prices. They had to provide local phone service, which they did, at a loss, for the sake of the consumer. Long distance was how they made up the difference. AT&T could not match MCI's prices; doing so would have driven them into a hole. They could have raised phone prices and lowered long distance rates, which is what happened eventually, after the Modification of Final Judgment in 1982 declared the forthcoming divestiture. But the Bell System didn't believe in hurting consumers like that. Businesses paid twice as much for a phone line as a residence, and businesses bore much of the burden of long-distance rates. In effect, America's businesses subsidized phone service for America's people for many years. And it worked. Until recently, nearly everybody had a telephone in his or her home. The natural adoption of the telephone would have been much slower had it not been for these cross-subsidies.

The Bell System was not perfect, but it was not evil either. It was the most benevolent system that ever was. American Telephone & Telegraph was a large but excellent corporation. The Western Electric name meant quality. Bell Labs is responsible for many of the inventions we take for granted today, such as, again, the laser, and the transistor. We would not have CDs, computers, or cellular phones without Bell Labs. We would not be able to pick up the phone and dial long-distance ourselves without Bell Labs. How did it happen? AT&T was able to take revenue from other parts of the Bell System and pour it into Bell Labs. Many projects that had nothing to do with phone service were realized and are used everyday today. None of this could have happened without the monolithic Bell System.

Telephone experts universally agree that America was better off with the Bell System than without it. Today, the landline network is decaying. Long-distance rates, with the intricate LATA (local access transport area) scheme by the FCC, make absolutely no sense. What's a local toll call you ask? Why is calling my neighbor long-distance? Blame the Justice Department and the Bell System Divestiture.

A regulated privately owned telephone monopoly has been proven to be the best means of providing telephone service to a country. Nationalizing is not the solution. Competition is not the solution. History has proven they don't work. Today's phone network is decentralized and extremely inefficient. It's a wonder phone calls go through at all today.

By all means, read the "Re-Inventing Wires" report. There's some good stuff in there, particularly with regards to why 5G is unnecessary. But don't take it at face value. The authors' knowledge of the Bell System is nil, and their solutions are dubious at best, dangerous at worst. The thing to do with landlines is go back in time: back before the Telecommunications Act of 1996, back before the Bell System Divestiture. I won't say that the report has an industry focus, because nationalization would disrupt the telecom industry enormously. But there does seem to be a lot of sympathizing with Big Wireless and modern telecom companies when you consider the effects of what the report recommends. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and I'm sorry to say that's exactly where "Re-Inventing Wires" leads.

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