May 2022 Vol. 77 No. 5

Editor's Log

Fiber Comes Home

By Robert Carpenter, Editor-in-Chief

The inexorable wave of fiber to the premises continues its march across America and indeed, much of the world. And to my delight, fiber is finally arriving at homes in my suburban community. 

Following years of reviewing, testing and experimenting with business and technology models, the fiber industry heated up and has been attacking market expansion with a fervor reminiscent of the late 1990s. For my neighborhood, after more than 20 years of waiting, suddenly AT&T is in a hurry. But then again, so is everyone in the fiber market. 

I live on the west side of Houston in unincorporated Harris County. It’s defined as the Katy area, which encompasses a small town in the middle of an ocean of planned communities and a massive school district. 

Like many such areas around the country, the ’burbs are where land is plentiful, houses affordable and schools are stellar. Needless to say, it’s a boom region, with a population making it larger than Pittsburgh, Pa. Telecommunications providers lick their chops when development opportunities surface in Katy. 

Our subdivision build-out was completed about 2000. At the same time, a fiber trunkline was installed down a major road less than a mile away. Our neighborhood was excited about the possibility that we may soon access the “fiber-optic super-highway.” But in 2000, we knew little about the business; apparently, neither did most of the providers. 

We now know that in 2000, the fiber construction boom had peaked – mostly without fiber-to-the-premises (FTTX) just lots of cross-country fiber trunklines. The flaw in the business plans was exposed. 

The “build-it-and-they-will-come” philosophy didn’t work. All the fiber trunklines in the world meant nothing without enough customers to generate positive cash flow. Yet customers were hard to come by, as fiber services still offered too little for the cost. 

The fiber market essentially shut down overnight. Contractors found their projects cancelled in the middle of a job. Small-rig horizontal direction drilling – a technology largely developed for the fiber industry – saw its incredible production rates of thousands nose-dive to a few hundred. Once-lively talk of how the fiber construction boom could last for another 10 years quickly shifted to simply: “Will it ever come back?” and “How do we survive until it does?” 

The long road to recovery started with markets adjusting to the reality that industry needed more than just business customers to gain success. Technology advances and fiber sophistication concerning practical applications for even residential customers needed to develop, as well. 

The second fiber explosion has been upon us for a few years. The difference is that now fiber is being connected everywhere – homes, businesses, schools, medical facilities, etc. If there is one thing COVID-19 taught us, it was the value of high-speed internet and entertainment capabilities. 

It was no surprise that fiber installations in our area started in the newer subdivision, where fiber could be installed from the start. Work has now started to backfill existing areas and has arrived in my subdivision. The process started out with door knockers telling us what was going on and claiming up to 5-gigabit speeds would be coming – for select neighborhoods. 

The geek that I am, I signed up immediately to get updates, figuring that AT&T would at least make an affordable offer for the first three months of fiber service. I envisioned an experience like test-driving a Lamborghini for a few weeks. Then, depending on the cost, we would settle on a more practical and affordable rate. 

A second door knocker announced that work would begin soon, but stressed only speeds up to 1 gig, not 5. Apparently, our area is not a “select” neighborhood (probably too many people are cheap like me). 

Work began with the arrival of utility locators for gas and electric. The next day, when I got home, I discovered contractors had already been busy digging holes all over the neighborhood. Of course, I had to inspect their work in my backyard. 

It also gave me the opportunity to talk to a pleasant AT&T service technician, working in my neighbor’s yard, repairing a cut phone line. Apparently, that was happening a lot during the construction process. I was amused the next day when another locator showed up, this time from AT&T telephone – too many phone lines had been cut. 

And the locators weren’t through, yet. Another one visited to investigate our sliced Charter cable television line. Fortunately, we’re not a Charter subscriber, so we never even knew the line was cut. 

Alas, these are the trials and tribulations of rapid fiber deployment in 2022. With billions in government funding being pumped into the mix, it’s going to continue for some time. But I look forward to the end result. 

I’m still disappointed that we’re only getting 1-gig speed internet rather than five. However, that’s still many times faster than what we have now. Driving a Shelby Mustang, while perhaps not at the Lamborghini level, is still pretty sweet. • 

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