Dark fiber should fill residential broadband holes

Gaming and video needs low-latency pipes. Some say more existing dark fiber should be provisioned for residential use to thwart incumbent ISP service problems and price increases.

Picture of man playing video games
Credit: James Ryan

With broadband speeds newly defined as starting at 25 Mbps, as opposed to the archaic 4 Mbps definition, what happens if you now no longer have residential broadband? And what do you do if, to add insult to injury, your ISP ups its prices?

Well, the answer is that you pretty much do nothing. There isn't anything you can do. The ISP, in most cases, has a monopoly — a duopoly at best. If you want uncapped Internet, however jerky the video, you've got to use that hard-wired ISP.

But that might soon be changing. The reason: dark fiber.

Dark fiber is the term coined for private fiber networks often used for financial transactions. They're usually networks that are not owned by telcos and cable companies.

And there's lots of it around, much of which is barely used because oftentimes not all the strands are provisioned.

Dark fiber for residential?

Unused fiber-optic lines should be leased by "go-getting entrepreneurs so they can light up boutique broadband systems," says David Lazurus, a consumer affairs writer, writing in the Los Angeles Times.

Entrepreneurs should grab unused fiber and market the lines to residential customers, thus thwarting cable price increases, he says.

And he's got a point. It has worked. Lazarus says that there are examples of entrepreneurs who have used dark fiber for residential purposes. Bel Air Internet in Los Angeles, for example, serves 30,000 residential customers. Its selling point is guaranteed speeds.

Locations

A lot of existing dark fiber is installed in urban areas, often city centers. Financial trading, found there, makes good use of the low latency that the point-to-point lines provide.

And city centers, like downtown Los Angeles, for example, are where millennials are beginning to make homes. Some once-desolate urban cores now teem with youthful life.

Millennials, unlike older suburban dwellers, don't care about TV cable packages or triple plays with landlines—they don't use them. They are demanding high-speed, quality Internet for gaming and streaming TV above all else.

That's something dark fiber, with its low-latency, should be able to provide.

Indeed, dark fiber could be the perfect channel for distributing the likely upcoming avalanche of traffic, as more people cut the cable TV cord and sign up for a la carte subscriptions from Netflix and others. Notably, HBO is about to launch its Internet-only pack.

Guaranteed speeds and latency aside, a killer feature could be something the major telcos have found virtually impossible to conquer—customer service.

Entrepreneurial telcos

Small entrepreneurial telco service is not a new idea. Rural America, including parts of the Intermountain West, has used directional, radio-based voice phone service delivered by TV-like antennas for years. One-man operations were set up offering service to cover a lack of copper infrastructure. It predates cellular.

WISPs, or Wireless Internet Service Providers, are another entrepreneurial telco effort. They tap a broadband connection and then send Internet over a long distance to neighbors. The oftentimes radio geek, operating the enterprise, takes advantage of the microwave nature of Wi-Fi.

Which brings us on to the question of the legality of private broadband. It's allowed. This is America. Although an ISP lobby, over the years, has colluded with regulators to ban public municipal broadband in many places.

That nixing means cities and towns in some states, like Nebraska, for example, can't lease its existing municipal dark fiber on a retail basis. Those kinds of rules may change soon, though.

Continued build outs

Dark fiber business-oriented build-outs continue. Zayo, a dark fiber provider, has just completed another link in its 81,500 route-mile private network.

The new pipe constructed runs panel-to-panel for about 23 miles between the New York Stock Exchange's obscure data center building, across the highway from a Home Depot in suburban New Jersey, and an equally bland building in Secaucus, next to a Men's Warehouse distribution center.

Who's it for? Good question, and Zayo won't tell you, but you can reckon it's not shirt-and-tie inventorying.

It's likely for financial trading, a function that requires low-latency Internet. Entrepreneurs, step up, because that's something also needed for gaming.

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