Why Fiber Internet Expansion Is Important Right Now

More costly now, but it will last longer

Key Takeaways

  • AT&T says fiber internet isn’t needed right now. Instead, it asks for the government to fund slower networks.
  • AT&T claims that pushing fiber will lead to “overbuilding” and wasting money.
  • While it will cost more to expand with fiber, experts say it’s the most future-proof option on the table.
Fiberglass network under construction

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AT&T is pushing for federal approval to fund slower internet instead of fiber, a move experts say will only hurt consumers in the end.

Recent lobbying by AT&T pushes back against recent proposals to subsidize fiber-to-home deployment across the United States. In a blog post published on the company’s website, Joan Marsh, executive vice president of federal regulatory relations, claims that pushing fiber would only lead to “overbuilding,” and that service options of 50 Mbps down/10 Mbps up, or even 100/20 Mbps, is more than sufficient. Furthermore, Marsh says it isn’t practical to assume fiber can or even should be used to service every home in rural America. Experts disagree.

“For the foreseeable future, fiber connections will continue to be the most robust, future-proofed form of connectivity that we can invest in, and as such, every provider in the US should ideally be pushing for it,” Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow, wrote to Lifewire in an email.

Overbuilding or Competition?

One of the oldest arguments that has been pushed around for the expansion of broadband in America is a concern that internet service providers (ISPs) will “overbuild” in a given area. Regulation of such issues often falls to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), though it has still been an issue pushed by many ISPs to slow expansion of higher-speed broadband, especially to rural areas.

“A more contentious issue arises when public monies are spent in areas that meet (or in areas that fall short of meeting) the FCC’s current minimum standard and complaints are made about the wastefulness of what is called ‘overbuilding.’” Jonathan Sallet writes in Broadband For America’s Future: A Vision for the 2020s.

In his paper, published by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, Sallet states that many have a habit of referring to the construction of new and competitive networks as “overbuilding.” Sallet explains this term is an engineering term that doesn’t take into account the consumer and how competitive internet options can improve the services they're offered. Instead, Sallet says “overbuilding” is used as a way to determine if the cost of putting those networks in place is worth it.

This recent call-to-action for fiber expansion could have AT&T worried because it possibly opens the door for more ISPs to step up and offer better speeds, prices, and services in areas where the company hasn't faced viable competition.

The Bigger Problem

The much bigger issue that needs to be addressed is how long this technology will last. As it stands, people's digital needs are only growing. This means they require more access to faster internet to stay connected.

"For the foreseeable future, fiber connections will continue to be the most robust, future-proofed form of connectivity that we can invest in."

Under the FCC’s current policy, broadband is defined as any connection capable of 25/3 Mbps. When former FCC chairman Ajit Pai left his position in January 2021, he found that the definition the FCC created in 2015 was still applicable. But, these speeds are far from suitable for the digital needs many Americans have today. Additionally, these speeds—and the wiring they’re built on—don’t provide any kind of future-proofing.

As it stands right now, much of AT&T’s current U-Verse offerings rely on a 14-year old system that connects to the main nodes in neighborhoods using fiber cabling. However, the final connection to the subscribed customers utilizes older copper wiring. 

farmer with digital tablet in crop field

Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

While the move originally saved AT&T the cost of laying down fiber to every home, it could cost the company more to upgrade those neighborhoods in the future. This cost becomes even greater when you look at how many rural networks are connected using older copper wiring, and even how AT&T and other companies have failed to maintain those older wire systems. This problem will only grow as companies continue to expand using those slower, older internet cable options.

While foregoing fiber support right now will save companies some money, Cooper warns that it will only hurt the end user in the long run.

“Consumers are the ones who will suffer here, because aging technologies will continue to age, all while our bandwidth needs are evolving and increasing year after year,” he said.

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