Wired: Why Boston Needs Fiber

Boston needs to build its own fiber-optic Internet network—now.
boston fiber optic internet network

Illustration by C.J. Burton

In February 2010, Google sent American mayors into a tizzy when the company announced that it wanted to build an experimental, blazingly fast fiber-optic network for one lucky city. It would feature speeds more than 100 times faster than standard cable broadband service (1 gigabit per second, compared with roughly 7 megabits per second) but would cost users only $70 per month. More than 1,100 towns and cities applied, with elected officials scrambling to come up with attention-grabbing gimmicks. Sarasota, Florida, for example, temporarily renamed one area “Google Island,” while Peoria, Illinois, flew a plane trumpeting its candidacy over Google’s headquarters.

Here in Boston, we responded as one might expect, with an attitude that suggested Google would be foolish to build a network anywhere else. The mayor’s office proclaimed us “Google-ready” and released a nine-minute video touting Boston as a global metropolis with a small enough footprint to make the running of pricey fiber-optic cables relatively affordable. The city also played up our role as a nexus of technological, academic, and healthcare research. What better use for a lightning-fast fiber network than connecting Boston’s “opportunity hub” of the Longwood Medical Area, the Innovation District, and the universities?

Unfortunately, Kansas City won the Google Fiber Lottery. (Boston, according to Bill Oates, the city’s chief information officer, was on the “short list,” although apparently not short enough—in April of this year, Google Fiber announced that its second and third cities would be Austin, Texas, and Provo, Utah.) The Google Fiber service debuted in November 2012 to rave reviews, adding kindling to an already hot startup scene in Middle America and earning Kansas City the nickname “Silicon Prairie.” Other cities are now building their own networks, without the help of a cash-flush tech or telecom company. Not all of those networks are as fast as Google’s, but they’re still as much as 10 times faster than Comcast’s, for about the same price (roughly $50 to $70 per month). And the nature of fiber makes upgrading them to be even faster relatively easy.

Boston, though, remains no closer to an affordable fiber-optic network than it was three years ago, despite the fact that City Hall had it absolutely right—we’re the perfect place to build one. Our cutting-edge hospitals could leverage the network’s speed for medical imaging and experimentation in remote care; startups in the Innovation District could break new ground in gaming and Web applications; and dorm-room geeks could harness the speed to build the next big company. We don’t know exactly what people will build yet, just like we couldn’t predict what would happen when communities started to migrate from dial-up Internet to broadband. What we do know is that people are increasingly using data-hungry technologies like cloud computing, video chatting, and video streaming, and our current network is becoming outdated.

If we don’t upgrade soon to a network that’s dramatically faster than what we have now and cheap enough for everyone to afford, we’ll miss out on all that exciting tech growth. Let’s stop waiting for a fiber-optic savior and build our own network right now.

 

The Internet may have started as a luxury plaything (not unlike cable TV or satellite radio), but is now a basic utility that’s necessary for running a modern business. A recent report from the Bay Area Council Economic Institute found that jobs in technology are growing three times faster than those in the rest of the private sector. Each of those jobs also pays 17 to 27 percent more and helps create 4.3 other jobs in the overall economy.

Boston is constantly calling itself an innovative tech hub, but our economy is only as strong as the infrastructure supporting it. Unfortunately, the odious telecom companies hold a monopoly over our wired networks and stubbornly refuse to improve them. Comcast, which provides the majority of Internet service to Boston residents and businesses, has so far found its current broadband Internet service—which runs on the cable network they built decades ago—to be perfectly adequate, not to mention insanely profitable for shareholders (the company produced $6.2 billion in net income in 2012).

Comcast’s interests, though, aren’t the same as the city’s. “Right now, Boston is trying to attract businesses that need next-generation connections and hoping that Comcast will provide those,” says Christopher Mitchell, of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a group that advocates for communities to oversee essential systems. “But Comcast has no incentive to provide those services.”