In a recent blog post, AT&T suggested that building fiber to libraries is a “digital bridge to nowhere.” In response, the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition published a response post of their own. Here’s a snippet:
AT&T’s clumsy attempt to coin a phrase that analogizes schools and libraries to “nowhere” is a bit insulting, considering that schools and libraries often serve as the gateway for expanding the reach of broadband to nearby homes and businesses.
More importantly, however, AT&T suggests that the E-rate program should not support dark fiber even when it is the most cost-effective broadband solution. AT&T posits that schools and libraries may not have the wherewithal to administer dark fiber networks, and that supporting dark fiber is inconsistent with the goals of universal service.
The record shows otherwise. Many school districts and library systems are already using dark fiber networks today. Three school districts in Georgia reported to the FCC that they had installed dark fiber in the 1990’s, and those networks were recently upgraded to 1 Gbps capacity. The City of Lakeland Florida, Butte (MT) School District, Warrant Township (IN) have all installed dark fiber networks as well.
…Finally, AT&T’s blog suggests that dark fiber networks do not support the goals of universal service. On the contrary, dark fiber networks originally deployed to serve schools and libraries can interconnect with other networks, and the capacity can be shared on a wholesale basis with other providers who can provide high-speed Internet services to homes as well. For instance, the CEO of Fatbeam, which provides dark fiber service to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Yakima, Washington says that, after first obtaining a commitment from the local school district to use the fiber, it runs “fiber through the towns’ business district, then sells connectivity on a wholesale basis to other providers, who use the infrastructure to deliver Internet service and in some cases to support fiber-to-the-home deployments.”
The SHLB Coalition agrees with the portion of AT&T’s comments that suggests the E-rate program should be “technologically neutral”. Dark fiber may or may not be the best solution for every school or library, but each local school and library system should be entitled to consider the full range of options as to the most cost-effective technology. In fact, the FCC’s rules already establish the cost-effectiveness must be the most important factor a school or library uses in choosing their broadband service provider. Eliminating dark fiber from the mix — even when it is the least costly option — is not technology neutral and could mean that schools and libraries pay more for their broadband services than they should. This will then likely place even more stress on limited E-rate funds and make it harder to reach the President’s ConnectED goals.