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Broadening the Reach of Broadband

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Broadening the Reach of Broadband

Broadening the Reach of Broadband

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

On Mondays the business reports focuses on technology.

(Soundbite of music)

YDSTIE: This month, MORNING EDITION is gazing into the future, looking at the technological innovations that could define daily life five or ten years from now. And one area that's becoming increasingly important is the technology of how information gets from one place to another.

As people get more of their entertainment from the Internet, the amount of data flowing into and out of the home will grow, so telecommunications companies and communities are looking for ways to make broadband connections even broader and more affordable.

Joel Rose of member station WHYY reports.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

Starting in the 1990s, telecommunications companies spent billions of dollars laying fiber optic cable all over the country. That investment created an ultra-fast information superhighway says Blair Levin, a media analyst at Stiefel Nicholas. But he says it's carrying only a fraction of the traffic it was built to handle.

Mr. BLAIR LEVIN (Media Analyst, Stiefel Nicholas): We have a great eight-lane freeway where the on-ramps and off-ramps are kind of like dirt. And so, no matter how good the highway is, there's always a backup caused by the fact that the on-ramps and off-ramps aren't up to the speeds of the highway itself.

ROSE: Levin says there's still a gap at the most expensive part of the network: the last mile between the Internet and the consumer. He says those on-ramps have gotten better in the last decade as cable and DSL modems have replaced slower dialup connections. Now a host of new technologies are promising to make those on-ramps even faster.

Mr. ERIC RABE (Vice President of Media Relations, Verizon): We are fiber all the way from the network to the customer.

ROSE: That's Eric Rabe from Verizon. The company has an ambitious plan to hang thousands of miles of new fiber optic cable.

Mr. RABE: The advantage that that gives us is that as the explosion of data speeds and requirements takes place, we have the capacity to take that all the way to the customer.

(Soundbite of truck engine, men speaking on radio)

ROSE: Verizon technicians are lashing fiber optic cable onto telephone lines in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, on the edge of the Philadelphia suburbs. Manager Don Briggs says this team has just encountered an unexpected obstacle--a row of evergreens.

Mr. DON BRIGGS (Verizon Fiber Optic Technician, Philadelphia): You run into situations like, you know, if you're going to run into a whole string of trees like this, you're not going to get 5,000 feet up in a day.

ROSE: Fiber optic cable can carry many times as much data as traditional copper wiring, but it's expensive to deploy and every little delay adds to the cost.

Verizon says it spent a billion dollars last year alone building its so-called FiOS Network. With so much money involved, Wall Street investors are eager to see the payoff, but Verizon's Eric Rabe says that will come a few years down the road as consumers demand bigger and bigger pipes to deliver their digital entertainment.

Mr. RABE: As consumers use the Internet, they use video--that requires more and more bandwidth. And we're now typically deploying networks that are far, far faster than anything we've ever had in the past because of that demand.

ROSE: But there is concern among local governments that not everyone is going to be served by high-speed fiber optic networks. Analyst Blair Levin says local officials are worried that Verizon's FiOS and similar services will only be available in the most affluent neighborhoods.

Mr. LEVIN: What the municipalities want is the ability to tell the telephone companies that they have to build out to the entire area. And what the fear is on the part of the municipalities is that projects like FiOS, the way they're building it, they're only really building out to about 50 percent of the homes.

ROSE: And Levin says there's another reason Wall Street is wary of fiber optic networks. He says they may wind up facing competition from emerging wireless technologies. For instance, WiMAX, a wireless technology that promises to deliver broadband over great distances.

Mr. LEVIN: If WiMAX technology--a technology a lot of folks are talking about--actually works, you can put an antenna on a big building downtown and suddenly the entire downtown area is connected with very fast broadband.

ROSE: For now, WiMAX remains relatively untested in the wild, but a technology called Wi-Fi is already widely available. Wi-Fi uses a number of smaller antennas called nodes to build a mesh network. Wi-Fi is slightly slower than cable or DSL, but it's cheap to build and operate, and that's making it popular with cities that want to offer affordable wireless service to their residents.

Cole Reinwand is a vice president at EarthLink.

Mr. COLE REINWAND (Vice President, Product Strategy and Marketing, EarthLink Communications): The cities, I believe--at least those that I've talked to--don't believe that there are enough choices or that the broadband availability is there yet. While reports and so forth suggest that there's universal coverage available, some of the poorer neighborhoods really haven't been built out, and, you know, DSL or cable is not available.

ROSE: EarthLink has signed a contract with Philadelphia to build the city's Wi-Fi network. EarthLink will join with Google to do the same in San Francisco. And it's not just big cities that are trying to ensure that their citizens and public services have access to plenty of broadband.

Mr. PAUL LEONARD (Manager, Upper Dublin Township, Philadelphia): If you look over this way...

(Soundbite of electric saw)

Mr. LEONARD: ...you see those two yellow cranes down there? That's an overpass? That's Route 309...

ROSE: Paul Leonard is the manager of Upper Dublin Township, a suburb of Philadelphia. He points out the back window of City Hall and across a soccer field. Leonard said he recently discovered through happenstance that there's a major fiber optic cable, one of those eight-lane super highways, running just yards from his office.

Mr. LEONARD: We could conceivably run a fiber down, tap into that, and suddenly our library, which is downstairs in this building, or the Township building, or our police station, is on a network that is much, much more powerful than the little pipeline that we buy now from Verizon or from Comcast.

ROSE: And he says the Township could potentially offer that fast wireless service to its citizens, too. Leonard says the U.S. once ranked fourth in the world in broadband penetration. Today, it's fallen out of the top ten.

Leonard says he'd like to see a national policy that promotes that wider access, but he says even that won't let local leaders off the hook.

Mr. LEONARD: Every community needs to have a technology plan. We're developing ours, because if we don't, the kids in China or Brazil or Bangalore could eat our lunch.

ROSE: Just as new wireless and fiber networks are beginning to compete with existing broadband offerings, another player may be poised to enter the U.S. market: satellite television.

Analyst Blair Levin says Direct TV and Dish Network, which already sell digital TV signals, could soon offer broadband, too.

Mr. LEVIN: The satellite guys don't want to be stuck just selling video, so they want to have a broadband offering so they can sell consumers a competitive product.

ROSE: That means satellite TV providers could join a growing list of companies and cities offering to carry data over the last mile to your front door.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.

YDSTIE: Next Monday, we'll examine the building blocks that are the foundation of the information age: computer chips, smaller and more powerful than ever.

Previous reports about how future technological innovations may affect your daily life are at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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