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The key to innovation: Privately owned fiber?

A paper released by the New America Foundation proposes encouraging consumers to purchase their own fiber lines.

The United States through its history has been the world's leading innovator thanks to a few hobbyists tinkering in their garages. If the U.S. wants to maintain its dominance in the world market, some argue, its policies should encourage innovation through broadband deployment.

While Congress has taken steps to promote universal broadband, a new working paper from the New America Foundation suggests a peculiar route to fostering the nation's next great innovators: allowing consumers to purchase and own their own fiber-optic connection.

In their paper Homes with Tails (PDF), Columbia Law School professor and NAF Fellow Tim Wu and Google Policy Analyst Derek Slater lay out a proposal in which a community would establish a collectively-owned fiber trunk cable that would lead to individually-owned lines into people's homes.

Columbia Law professor Tim Wu explained Friday the benefits of encouraging privately owned fiber lines. Stephanie Condon/CNET News

Such an architecture would be "akin to a condominium complex--also a radical form of property not too long ago," Slater said.

The fiber would lead an open point of presence (or PoP), at which different service providers could set up equipment and compete for residents' business.

The option to own fiber should be available, the authors argued, since it is unlikely that the private sector will invest in widespread fiber deployment, and there are too many unanswered questions as to how the government might fund such a venture.

"It costs billions and billions of dollars, and it's not clear what the killer app would be that would justify the investment," Wu said.

Cost would be a clear obstacle for any consumer as well, he acknowledged.

"It is true $2,000 is a lot of money, but people spend tens of thousands of dollars on home renovations all the time," Wu said.

The authors said that while there is no reason why privately owned fiber cannot work, it will require some experimentation and research.

Moreover, they said, their plan is not intended to be widespread but for places where it could easily be established, such as in newly-built communities with homeowner associations. It should be for the few who could make the most out of such great capacity.

"What could the hobbyists, the Steve Wozniaks and Steve Jobses of today, do with 10 gigabytes?" asked Wu. "We're talking about giant leaps forward."

Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said that the plan was commendable for putting forward new policy innovation, which is lacking in the United States.

"Other nations are becoming the laboratories for democracy," he said. "This is really about policy innovation to drive technological innovation."

A representative for Verizon challenged the notion that telecommunication companies are not investing enough to drive innovation. The industry spends $65 billion annually to maintain and upgrade its networks, said Link Hoewing, Verizon's assistant vice president of Internet and technology issues.

More at issue is compelling people who have access to broadband to actually use it, Hoewing said. Consumers often say they do not need to pay for it because they have access to high-speed Internet at work.

The authors submitted their proposal was not the answer to improving broadband access in the U.S., but one of many possible solutions.

"Solving this problem is so important that we need as much experimentation and investigation to come up with many solutions as possible," Slater said.