Productivity Gains from Fiber networks

This is going to be a bit of a random post based on a seminar I went to today before a meeting with two of my professors. The idea is that an increase in internet speed will lead to productivity gains at corporations, which of course will lead to a growing economy. First, why do we care about this? Well, in small countries like New Zealand and the Netherlands as well as South Korea and Japan where there is an extremely high broadband penetration there is discussion of using public money to build fiber networks. What’s the difference? Broadband basically means anything faster than dial-up internet. If you have DSL, aDSL or cable, you have a broadband connection. What I mean by penetration, is that a high number of users in many different areas have access to broadband connections. This means there are enough providers that the majority of users are able to access the internet at high enough rates to be able to stream videos and download pictures at reasonable rates.  What is fiber though? Fiber optics, because that’s what it is, are networks that use lasers to communicate information rather than electrons. On a cable line there are changes in voltages that indicate a one or a zero, whereas with fiber it’s either a light on or off (one or a zero). This is able to be transmitted at a much higher rate.

Based on productivity data and information about different firms the study indicated that the largest productivity gain was seen in the shift between dial up and broadband. It also indicated that firms that used fiber and firms that used broadband did not see any difference in productivity. A follow up study indicated that if there was any difference it was related to size and to industry. This basically showed that there is no reason to subsidize fiber. That the government should not try to force telecoms to lay down fiber networks and that individual firms will that require fiber should pay for the investment themselves. The study also indicated that there may not be the applications, for firms, that require fiber networks.

Personally, and the author agrees with me, I think this leads to a chicken and the egg problem. If there is no fiber network how do you create an application with a wide enough audience that requires fiber when there are few customers to use it? It also puts a large burden on firms that require the network, especially if they are a smaller firm. Larger firms would be better positioned to afford the cost of the fiber line to their office as well as the equipment to utilize it. Although, in many cases they will have to worry about their old equipment from the broadband system they used.

In all, I felt it was a very interesting talk that discussed various problems with trying to get the government to subsidize the creation of a broadband network. The author also suggested if you are trying to stimulate the economy by building the network, there might be better targets for the subsidy dollars.

I’ll try to post next week. I’m heading to Munich tomorrow morning.

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