HHH: Fiber

Logo for Henry's Hightech Highlights

I’ve highlighted a lot of exciting technologies in this blog series, but there is one out there right now that I believe libraries should be making every effort to acquire and take advantage of, if they haven’t already. Harnessing it will ensure that both the library and the community it serves will continue to thrive in the future. The technology I’m talking about is fiber optic cable connectivity.


Today’s highlight: Fiber


Social media giant Facebook announced earlier this month that they’ve been collaborating with a number of partners to develop a robot that can deploy fiber optic cables quickly over power lines. This dramatically reduces the cost of fiber construction.

 [Nerdy fun fact that I personally love: they nicknamed the robot “Bombyx”, scientific name for a silk moth. Get it?]

Computer-generated rendering of cylindrical robot on powerlines above an inhabited rural area.
Source: Facebook

Why is Facebook making an acrobatic silkworm robot? Around the world, 3.5 billion people are still not connected to the Internet. And for those who have access, average data usage per person is growing 20 to 30 percent annually, pushing current capacity to its limits. To address these issues, Facebook says, “fiber must be brought from the backbone closer to the end user.”  For them, that means pursuing innovations like Bombyx.

I, for one, welcome our new robot fiber deliverers.  


What is fiber?

To put it poetically, it’s light-filled glass connecting us to a better tomorrow. I’m inspired to describe it this way because of the book I’m currently reading: “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution―and Why America Might Miss It” by Susan Crawford. In her book, Crawford sings fiber’s praises and makes excellent points about why fiber deployment is the key to the nation’s success.

Cover image of the book, Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution―and Why America Might Miss It, by Susan Crawford

On her love of the technology of fiber, Crawford writes:

“Inventors have found ways to encode stunning amounts of information on pulses of light vibrating billions of times per second, and then send that light on its journey through a channel made of the purest glass on earth.”

Fiber, Crawford explains, is a physical connection that needs to be distributed to each individual building for it to be harnessed. The same is true for copper and cable, of course, but fiber is more flexible and doesn’t require recipients to be close to a central physical hub. Perhaps the biggest advantage of fiber is one doesn’t have to dig the existing cables back up to make an upgrade. Those cables can stay where they are, and they last for decades. One just has to “swap out the electronics that encode and power the pulses of light,” which are easily accessible above ground. This means that fiber is almost infinitely upgradeable, and it’s why so many consider it a future-proof technology, unlikely to become obsolete any time soon.


Needed for the future

Many of the emerging technologies I have highlighted for HHH are ones we expect to be a big part of our lives in the future. And here’s the truth: they require fiber infrastructure to work in the first place.

So many of us use our smartphone in the outside world away from our homes, and we might be forgiven for thinking that wireless connectivity is a wholly separate technology from a wired connection. But they’re actually complimentary―WiFi requires a fast wired connection for it to work. Fiber, plus advanced wireless capability, as we’d see with the predicted 5G revolution, is, as Crawford writes, “central to the next phase of human existence as electricity was a hundred years ago.

5G means that enormous amounts of data can be shipped to whenever and wherever they’re needed. This allows the Internet of Things (IoT) to be implemented in our towns and cities to improve citizens’ lives, solving problems like traffic and the handling of fires and accidents, among many other things.

Fiber also enables Augmented Reality (AR). All that visual annotation occurring in real-time, or the piping in of live video feeds into our field of vision while we are out in the world―these features require fiber-enabled 5G connectivity. In her book, Crawford asks us to imagine an apprentice training in a remote factory using directions from AR, rather than having to go to the physical central training location. It means those in rural areas will have equal access to the same privileges as their urban counterparts.

Fiber/5G also allows for artificial intelligence (AI), driverless vehicles and personalized transportation, neural interfaces, persistent recognition systems, esports, and wearables.

And of course, telehealth. Crawford writes, “Every part of the health care system could be vastly improved by eliminating distance, bringing data, doctors, and counselors where they’re needed via communication networks, rather than making 330 million Americans travel to where these specialists and databases are.

Finally, Crawford thinks we may not fully grasp the value of having even faster speeds with fiber―particularly with regard to interacting remotely. Currently when we video conference with one another (an activity many of are having to do a whole lot more of), there are still lags when virtually communicating. Crawford points out that this delay means eye contact between people is not genuine. It’s something we humans actually notice, and subconsciously the interaction doesn’t fully satisfy us. It feels virtual, inferior. With the fiber-enabled higher speeds, we can overcome this dissatisfaction and unease. The closer we make our remote, virtual interactions feel like we are physically present with each other, the better the social connection, which could make a big impact in how we embrace the technology and use it in the future. Crawford writes, “Fiber will allow us to be present in others’ lives in ways we cannot now imagine.” 


Needed now

The truth is we can’t wait for the future to come.

The current crisis is revealing just how much of a digital divide we have in the United States. The alarm was raised long before the pandemic when it was pointed out that students who lacked Internet access at home were unable to complete their mandatory online homework, causing them to lose valuable educational opportunities and fall behind their classmates. Called the “homework gap,” this discrepancy and inequality of access created immediate disadvantages for many people. But in the times we’re living in now, with schools closing and having to switch to virtual classrooms, it means these same kids can no longer even participate in school activities at all. And, it should be pointed out, it’s not just Internet access that’s needed, but fast, affordable and reliable Internet access. Students may have an Internet-enabled device at home, but it may not be connected to the higher speeds needed to handle the video conferencing technology school use for their classes. What we’re seeing is that it’s not just a homework gap any more; it’s a learning gap. And we need a solution now. We needed it yesterday.

When public library buildings closed, similar issues were faced by many adults, who lost access to crucial services and opportunities. So many paths to success in life rely now on having online access: job search and training, healthcare information, communicating with loved ones, etc. Many people’s sole computer is their smartphone, and they must pay for data to access the Internet. Free available WiFi found at public libraries is a way to not only access the needed services but also to save money. Taking away the library’s Internet revealed just how many folks relied on it. Closing the library building and stopping the transmission of its Internet access is self-destructive. The community is stifled and starved, lacking in its source of nourishment to grow. This is why so many libraries are trying to lend out wireless hotspots and extend their WiFi into their parking lots. 

It’s not just the schools or libraries. A BroadbandNow report released in February said that only 25 percent of American have access to fiber, versus 87 percent for China’s 1.4 billion population. We are way behind. Everyone has a right to fast Internet speed right now. And those who don’t have it may suffer and become further disadvantaged.

Getting fiber to the library is a good start.  


How are public libraries getting fiber?

If a library isn’t receiving fiber, and no service provider is offering it at an affordable cost to the area, consider the following:

  • Advocate for fiber infrastructure to be brought to your community, either locally or nationally. 
  • Apply for federal E-rate discounts to afford the costs not only for special construction to build out the fiber to the library building, but for the cost of the Internet access itself.
  • Look for any existing fiber infrastructure in your community that can be leveraged. State appropriated funding in Texas helped support school districts in building expensive fiber rings across the state. We’re now seeing public libraries partnering with those same school districts to start taking advantage of their fiber connectivity. In many cases, the fiber ring was built so physically close that the cost to connect the library is minimal. Often in these partnerships, libraries join forces with the schools as part of a single consortium to apply for federal E-rate discounts.

Library Fiber for Victory!

Back in January, for this Highlights series, I created a set of updated World War II posters to empower library staff about using technology. 

For this month’s post, I’ve fashioned a new poster to drive home the need for more fiber in our efforts to close the digital divide as COVID-19 challenges us further:

On the left, original poster shows  soldiers carrying lumber beams to a bridge that's under construction over a river in the background. Other soldiers are defending an attack and an explosion has occurred in the river near the bridge. One soldier is facing the viewer has his hand up to his open mouth. Caption below says "KEEP THAT LUMBER COMING!".  On the right, new poster shows same soldiers now wearing the safety helmets and vests of public utility workers, and instead of carrying lumber, they're carrying fiberoptic cable which is being laid on the bridge.  The explosion in the water is labeled "COVID-19" and the gap in the bridge on the river is labeled, "DIGITAL DIVIDE". The yelling soldier facing the front now sports a badge with the library symbol on it.  Caption below says "KEEP THAT FIBER COMING!"
On the left, the original war-time poster; On the right, my modern update. Note the librarian issuing the clarion call.
Bigger version of new poster (Soldiers now wearing the safety helmets and vests of public utility workers carrying fiberoptic cable which is being laid on a halfway constructed bridge over a river.  The explosion in the water is labeled "COVID-19" and the gap in the bridge on the river is labeled, "DIGITAL DIVIDE". The yelling soldier facing the front  sports a badge with the library symbol on it.  Caption below says "KEEP THAT FIBER COMING!")

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