Let them eat fiber (in the access network)

Posted on March 17, 2012  /  0 Comments

In North America, Eli Noam is an agenda setter and has a knack for catchy titles. His article “Let them eat cellphones” set the agenda for a session at ICTD 2012 in Atlanta.

The session was, unusually for a North American event, highly international. Judith Mariscal of Mexico (and our sister organization DIRSI) chaired. Carleen Maitland of the US National Science Foundation talked about the importance of fiber for national research and education networks in Africa. Roxana Barrentes of DIRSI presented evidence on the marginal relevance of fiber for general broadband access in Latin America. Christoph Stork of RIA, our sister organization in Africa, made a data rich presentation on the current situation and future prospects for broadband in the African countries studied by RIA. When huge percentages of households lack electricity, there is not much to be said for laying fiber to homes!

In conditions of market-driven ICT rollout, I see little value in getting excited about the technology used by suppliers of last-mile access. My presentation presented data from S Korea, Hong Kong China and Sri Lanka. In the case of Korea and Hong Kong, the end results are about the same. The public funds spent are extraordinarily different. Korea is a poster child for spending with little regard for benefits. If countries have that kind of money and time (Korea has been working on broadband since the 1980s, even before the term was invented!), they should try to emulate Korea.

But Sri Lanka is more like the resource and capacity constrained countries that LIRNEasia and its sister organizations serve. Even with the most generous assumptions we’d be lucky to connect 18% of households to ADSL. What are the chances of laying fiber to all the households?

What we need to do is to push the fiber out as close as possible to human settlements; and create the market conditions for multiple access providers to connect people to the services they need using whatever technology that makes business sense. It will probably make sense to connect universities (Carleen’s clients) and businesses using fiber. But for the rest of us it will be wireless.


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