Broadband Access in the Age of Covid-19

BiTE is a completely remote, distributed team. That’s not COVID-related; we’ve been that way since the day we hung out our virtual shingle.

As the I-guess-we’re-in-the-second-wave-even-though-the-first-never-ended pandemic rages on, and more businesses move to remote work, we’re watching businesses struggle with the shift. And the infrastructure, too. Temporary outages are more and more common (in fact ours this morning inspired this post), and while those hiccups are making it hard for some to make the transition, most seem to be planned downtime while they expand broadband access.

And expanded capacity is what we need. Almost every state in the U.S. is looking at ways to expand its capacity as workers, students, and everyone else need fast, reliable service from their homes.

The Price of Connection

This is the new normal, for which we’ll need an enormous amount of technical growth. And that won’t be cheap — the plan to expand broadband infrastructure for New York City alone is projected to run $157 million. Washington State is sinking a relatively small $18 million into broadband expansion; San Antonio is cleverly using existing fiber optic networks designed to power traffic lights in order to expand access to its citizens; most significantly, early in July House Democrats passed an $80 billion bill to expand broadband infrastructure and access.

It’s a lot. And it costs a lot of money that might right now might seem irrational. After all, the pandemic will end, right?

Of course! Maybe. No, it totally will.

But the shift that’s occurring now isn’t temporary. So what may seem like an enormous outlay of money and effort for a momentary glitch in our global lives is actually the groundwork for the future. Even if 80% of people go back to their offices (they won’t) and we wind up with a little excess capacity in the short term, we’ll use it in the long.

Sea Change

Back when the first dot com boom was in full swing and fortunes were made and doubled in a single afternoon, undersea internet cables were the hot investment du jour. “Rich entrepreneurs investing in undersea cables” has all the rarefied weirdness of a Victorian fad, but it’s absolutely what occurred.

The submarine cable industry saw an “irrational exuberance” of investment, with more careful investors tutting at these crazy kids sinking their millions into sunken cables.

Many of those transatlantic cables lay fallow until around 2016, when Google and other tech giants started buying them for cheap (well, “cheap”) and laying the foundations of ocean dominance. In fact, Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft own or lease more than half of the bandwidth under the sea.

Those cables that seemed like doomed investments now comprise the backbone of international communication.

Undersea cables carry almost 100 percent of transoceanic data traffic. Garden-hose thin, the cables shuttle Internet, phone calls, and TV transmissions between continents at the speed of light.

Your wireless…isn’t.

We won’t always be stuck inside relying on Netflix to keep us sane, but demand for internet access will continue to grow exponentially. The majority of the world, surprisingly enough, still doesn’t have internet access. (Though Google is making balloony inroads into sub-Saharan Africa) As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, Internet becomes a necessity — not a luxury.

We’ll need the growth, just like we needed the cables.

Long live irrational exuberance.

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