An important reason why the edge is so underexploited is because of the lack of accurate resource planning by telcos and other broadband providers. Planning the Internet is hard in face of little history, and poor statistics, especially when you’re a near-monopoly with no-one else to accurately ape. I still dine out a little on my trip to Martlesham Research Laboratories in 1995, when the man from British Telecom said they were intending to roll out DSL with a 28.8Kb/s upstream bandwidth. That’s right: modem speed uploading! But how were they to know?
It seems to me that the most efficient thing to do in these circumstances is to actually offer as wide a range of possibilities for all comers as possible (ADSL, sure! Fiber? Okay, but it’s going to cost you, etc), and tie the prices close to cost plus a margin. That’s of course hard to do with a telco monopoly. Costs aren’t always obvious, you’re often eating your own lunch in another sector if you do, there’s no compelling reason to provide all possibilities in all markets, and anyway you’re probably under a bunch of government requirements that wouldn’t let you do it even if you wanted to. Plus you’re trying to run a tight, nationwide, ship here. There’s no point stringing fiber to all of Gwent if the real sweet spot is DSL in Hackney.
The end result is that telcos usually end up wearing blindfolds and sticking a pin on a donkey marked “consumer bandwidth provision”. That all goes fine until suddenly everyone is using iPlayer or hitting YouTube, or uploading every day to Flickr, or expecting zero latencies playing real-time games.
That’s one of the reasons why Derek Slater and Tim Wu’s ongoing research into consumer-owned fiber is fascinating to me. If telco companies — who now appear to be the de facto ISPs for most users — aren’t willing to string up high bandwidth to the last mile, then maybe we can start stringing fiber up the other way, adding fiber “tails” to our homes to add to their resale value, or working together as communities to exploit the municipally-owned fiber out there.
As Derek says, it’s not something that would work everywhere, but it’s worth looking into an experiment. And that experiment is already starting in some places:
This may all sound rather abstract, but a trial experiment in Ottawa, Canada is trying out the consumer-owned model for a downtown neighborhood of about 400 homes. A specialized construction company is already rolling out fiber to every home, and it will recoup its investment from individual homeowners who will pay to own fiber strands outright, as well as to maintain the fiber over time. The fiber terminates at a service provider neutral facility, meaning that any ISP can pay a fee to put its networking equipment there and offer to provide users with Internet access. Notably, the project is entirely privately funded. (Although some schools and government departments are lined up to buy their own strands of fiber, just like homeowners.)
The first part of it would be to try and gauge how much something like that would cost. Unfortunately, the best people to know answers like that are the telcos, and right now either they don’t know, or they won’t say. Governments and monopolies alike would like to have a well-mannered market for planning purposes; when the market isn’t like that, it’s probably worth looking into other ways of satisfying demand — or at least probing to see whether it is there.