Cerf’s Up

On preparing for broadband implementation

It is commonly understood that access to the Internet, World Wide Web, and computational resources of major data centers has a salient impact on social and economic well-being.  Information at your fingertips, answers to urgent questions, access to customers, platforms for building small and medium sized business, resources for large-scale multinationals…the list goes on. But how do we get there?

In these pages of InterGlobix Magazine, we’ve discussed the importance of infrastructure including subsea cables, Internet Exchange Points, data centers, and access networks. It’s the last point I want to discuss here. Developing plans for robust, high-speed communications infrastructure in support of Internet access is a non-trivial exercise. Local conditions vary dramatically in terms of topography, available resources, technologies, expertise, construction capacity, and a host of other items of importance. It is not a simple matter to assess the current state of connectivity and to evaluate paths to install new capacity where there is none or to improve capacity where it is insufficient for demand and applications.

We learned this lesson during the pandemic when schools and residences discovered they needed a lot more capacity and reliability than was then available. With the major investment program offering 45 billion USD for infrastructure building now allocated to the states, state and local authorities now have the challenge of planning their use of the funds.

A first step in all of this is to evaluate current conditions and readiness for new or enhanced capacity building. This evaluation takes a certain amount of expertise and experience that may not always be in hand in every municipality of interest. The Marconi Society and Arizona State University have joined forces to provide online classes to prepare local agencies for this work. Readers can find out more at this web site: https://marconisociety.org/programs-services/digital-inclusion-training/.

Virtually every communication technology available may play a role in outfitting the country with better Internet access. Optical fiber networks are ideal for super high-speed backbone construction where this is feasible. Point to point laser systems can deliver 10–20GB/s over distance of up to ten kilometers. Low Earth orbiting services such as Starlink can reach rural areas unable to accommodate dedicated fiber. Digital Subscriber Line can be a stopgap measure on existing copper pairs. WiFi-6 and WiFi-7 offer much better low latency capacity allocation. 5G base stations and their future 6G counterparts have roles to play, especially in urban settings.

The challenge with all these choices is figuring out which combinations are best suited to deliver the necessary capacity with the most optimal capital and operating costs. Strategies for evaluating alternative choices are needed, and the referenced course at Arizona State University is one avenue for preparation. This is a seminal period in the long 50-year history of the Internet as we try to make it truly accessible and affordable to everyone.

Even with this critical investment in physical infrastructure, we still have major challenges to ensure that users know how to make use of networked resources and how to avoid or defend against potentially harmful behaviors in online environments. As has become evident, the online world is no longer just an academic environment. It is a territory with hazards that users must be made aware of and equipped to defend against. It is also apparent that accountability and enforcement of rules of behavior are now needed. These will require international agreements to achieve the desired effect. Time once again to roll up our sleeves and tackle these problems head on.