A broken technology promise remembered at election time

Stephen N. Brown

As a presidential candidate in 1992, Bill Clinton saw fiber optics as an important contributor to economic growth and affordable infrastructure. Once in office, he changed.

Four years ago, Lightwave was delighted when Governor Bill Clinton responded to the magazine`s questionnaire on fiber optics and the future of the United States. Saying "fiber optics means jobs" (see Lightwave, October 1992, page 6), candidate Clinton also said he would promote a fiber-to-the-home (ftth) network. Two ubiquitous industries--telecommunications and electric-energy utilities--would jointly finance and use fiber-optic paths for standard telecommunications purposes and for the real-time pricing of energy consumption and the delivery of energy management services to electric utility customers.

This strategy would establish a business purpose for a ftth network, to be used hourly and perhaps more often by the local provider of electric power. Once this core activity was established, the network would be a less risky financial proposition. Other services would be added at little additional cost to the network, and a general-purpose national fiber network would be born. Clinton espoused this concept when he said: "To encourage cooperation between the electric-energy and communications industries and to provide an impetus to install a door-to-door network as soon as possible, I would as President, set forth an attainable date for such a network, which would ensure U.S. competitiveness in the field of fiber optics and optoelectronics with our European and Japanese trading partners."

Behind this promise was an apparent understanding that telecommunications and electric power were the twin pillars of affordable infrastructure in the United States. The real price of electricity in 1970 was about one-tenth of the real price in 1920, but by 1980 electricity had lost its golden glow: The more it was used, the more expensive it became. Meanwhile, telecommunications got cheaper--as did computer hardware and software. In the late 1980s, Americans` electric power bills were three to five times larger than their communications bills. By 1990, economists were saying that infrastructure would be more affordable if it embodied more communications technology. Using fiber optics to implement real-time pricing and to manage the real-time consumption of electricity would gradually reduce the nation`s need for coal and nuclear power plants, which are very expensive and the focus of environmental concern.

Fiber optics was to have played a similar role in transportation. Telecommuting would reduce wear and tear on roads, consumption of petroleum products, accidents and insurance costs while extending the life of automobiles. Clinton was to have started the nation on the road to pervasive, multifunctional fiber networks with immediate business purposes as well as economic and environmental benefits.

The Clinton presidency briskly walked away from its election promise. In early 1993, this writer called attention to Commerce Secretary Ron Brown`s testimony before the Senate Commerce Committee. Brown, the Administration`s technology czar, was backing away from fiber optics (see Lightwave, May 1993, page 56). The late Secretary responded with a letter to Lightwave`s editor (see Lightwave, December 1993, page 4), saying: "Your columnist asserted that in recent testimony...I distanced myself from the concept that Congress should legislatively appoint fiber optics as the technology of choice for national information infrastructure. ...That characterization of my testimony was essentially correct." Brown added, "The national information infrastructure should be driven by user needs, not by technological imperatives imposed by government."

Brown`s comments to Lightwave were correct; the federal government was keeping its hands off fiber optics, but only because it had already annointed a wireless technology--personal communications services (PCS)--as the technology of choice. In 1990, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began a campaign to boost the wireless communications industry. The campaign reached a peak in August 1992, when the FCC issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking as part of the General Docket 90-314, aimed at developing regulations to govern PCS in local telephone networks (see Lightwave, February 1993, page 48). The chief proponent of PCS was former FCC Commissioner Andrew Barret, who resigned last summer after nine years with that agency. In November 1992, Barret said: "The FCC must continue to engage in efforts to develop PCS services in the United States," a complete contradiction of Brown`s later assertion that there should be no "technological imperatives imposed by government."

The period from August 1992 to May 1993 was a pivotal time for national telecommunications policy, with the FCC being the de facto policy leader. The agency`s strong support of wireless technology stemmed from the concept of "two wires into every home"--the seed that would supposedly give life to a competitive telecommunications market. The "two wires" idea had been the agency`s prevailing ideology since the mid-1980s, but no big player had acted on it until November 1992, when AT&T responded to the FCC`s obvious policy tilt and purchased McCaw Cellular. The purchase could not be finalized for several months. The delay gave the Clinton Administration an opportunity to review the situation and to put a policy in place. However, the Administration did nothing.

During that time, the Democrats controlled Congress, which held several hearings on the information superhighway, and in which wireless communications was always touted. Fiber optics technology was ignored. On January 19, 1993, the then-Chairman of Apple Computer, John Sculley, testified to the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance: "A broadband network based on fiber optics is certainly what the country needs. The question is: Can we wait long enough to get a broadband fiber-optic network into every house? We believe not." (See Lightwave, April 1993, page 56.)

Sculley`s self-contradictory statement is as close as any executive came to openly endorsing a door-to-door fiber-optic network. Not a single representative at or after the hearing, ever asked Sculley about the implications of his remark. He continued his testimony, saying: "The cellular industry obviously is interested in making a transition from analog technology to digital, they can do that but they could use more frequency spectrum." The chairman of the subcommittee, Edward Markey (D-MA), who managed to retain his seat in the 1994 elections, responded: "I assure you that this subcommittee is committed to that agenda."

Later in the year, former democratic Congresswoman Marjorie Margolis-Mezvinsky, also a member of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance, described fiber optics as a "golden calf," an apparent biblical reference to fiber optics as a kind of false god of technology (see Lightwave, August 1993, page 42.) Fiber optics was also scorned by the consumer movement. The Consumer Federation of America panned fiber optics networks by saying that narrowband Integrated Services Digital Network technology would "deliver 80% of the capabilities of a ubiquitous broadband fiber-optic network...at 10% of the cost."

The Clinton Administration, the Democratic party and the consumer movement have treated fiber optics like an eccentric, expensive and troublesome relative whose family wishes it would go away. They will not allow themselves to see fiber optics as Paul Green, author of Fiber Optic Networks, sees it: "Fiber is not just a slightly better version of copper. ...The medium is so remarkably different from its predecessors that to use it most effectively, one must rethink the entire subject of networks."

This has not happened in the United States. Political decision-makers cannot or will not relate networks to the common good. The entire public telecommunications system is still fashioned as a star-type architecture dependent on central office switches. Even the new facilities follow the same pattern. There is no effort to reshape networks along a bus pattern where the network intelligence is at the end nodes. A bus pattern would be a good fit with a ftth network, but it is still dismissed as too expensive.

The Clinton Administration`s feckless submission to wireless technology carries through to the new telecommunications law and its implementation. In May, the United States Postal Service signed an agreement permitting the agency`s buildings throughout the country to be used for wireless services. Postmaster General Marvin Runyon said that rent from wireless sites would go toward keeping postage costs stable.

In August, the FCC ordered reductions in access charges that wireless service providers pay to wireline carriers. No one should be surprised by this action. The federal government will do whatever it takes to boost wireless communications. This determination is now backed by the full force of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which gives the FCC complete power to override local zoning and land use ordinances regarding wireless towers. Approximately 100,000 towers, 100 to 250 feet tall, may be built over the next decade. Compare those to fiber`s tiny dimensions, and consider that hundreds of fiber strands can easily fit into ducts and rights-of-way throughout the country.

Consider that more than 60% of nation`s population lives in metropolitan areas of more than one million people and that they face traffic jams, long commute times and diesel exhaust every day. Consider that the government has not yet solved the problem of what to do with the long-lived radioactive nuclear waste from nuclear power plants and that consumers will pay for this in one way or another. You may save a little money on postage stamps, but you may also wish that Clinton had kept his promise about fiber optics.

Stephen N. Brown specializes in market research and public policy toward new technology in the telecommunications industry. He can be contacted at tel: (615) 399-1239.

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