All of those millions of miles of dark fiber are primarily expected to deliver broadband connections. The Internet continues to grow unabated, and bandwidth must be expanded to accommodate that growth.
I’ve discussed how mobile communications has become the biggest growth area. Recent statistics show that mobile is using an equal amount of bandwidth to landlines and is growing more rapidly. Traditional telcos have focused on mobile, and some are ignoring landlines, especially in rural areas where connections are much more expensive than in urban areas.
If you have been following the net-neutrality issue, you have heard the threats to stop investing in broadband landlines and the claims that making the Internet a Title II telecom service subject to Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulation will stifle broadband development. Of course, all of this talk is merely posturing as the big telcos prepare to sue the FCC. Title II regulation doesn’t seem to stifle investment in mobile systems, and they have been classified under Title II for almost 25 years. Perhaps this is just an excuse to ignore aging copper networks that are more expensive to update than mobile.
The exception to this attitude about landlines is Verizon. Verizon’s FiOS has proven technically and financially to be much more successful than expected. Verizon saves so much money with FiOS that the company will give customers a FiOS connection even if they only want phone service. The company recently announced that its analysis of all fiber central offices showed a 60 percent savings over copper or combinations of fiber and copper. Now Verizon is committed to converting all 2,000 of its central offices to fiber.
Other telcos’ (such as AT&T) attitudes about landlines have created major opportunities for other groups to provide high speed (usually gigabit) Internet in AT&T’s backyard. The biggest competitor is Google Fiber in Austin, Texas; Kansas City, Mo.; Provo, Utah; and soon Salt Lake City and five cities in the Southeast.
Cable TV companies now have the technology to upgrade their hybrid fiber-coaxial networks to offer very high speeds, and it’s easier for them because it only involves swapping out the cable modem.
I assume you have heard about projects in Chattanooga, Clarksville, Bristol and Jackson in Tennessee, where fiber to the home (FTTH) was piggybacked onto the electrical utility’s smart grid systems. Especially in rural areas, where long cable runs are expensive, being able to build a FTTH network on the fibers you are running for the smart-grid system saves money and provides additional revenue to the utility.
While the telecom industry spends tons of resources on lobbying and lawyers—more than enough to connect a half-million users each year with FTTH—utilities, communities, developers, independent telcos, Internet service providers (ISPs), etc., are forging ahead on these projects. Let me tell you about a couple of them.
A rural electrical co-op in California called the Fiber Optic Association (FOA) for advice on designing and installing a smart-grid/FTTH system. It’s a classic example of why telcos hate rural areas. The co-op’s 5,000 or so customers were spread out over hundreds of square miles in the Southern California mountains. Most of these customers were without Internet access unless they had a satellite connection, even though a major communications cable ran through the middle of town. The incremental cost to provide Internet access over the co-op’s grid backbone was low enough to make gigabit FTTH feasible.
The co-op owns the utility poles and has crews who know electrical distribution. The FOA spent some time training the co-op’s crews on fiber so they could effectively work with the installation contractors that the co-op hired and maintain the network afterward. The project is moving along, and installation should begin later this year.
The second project is just as interesting. A developer built a community of hundreds of homes about 30 miles outside of a medium-sized Southern city. The only communications link was phone service, and homeowners were asking about broadband. The developer decided to install a private FTTH system.
This was in one of the 19 states where cable TV and telco lobbyists had gotten laws passed banning municipal and utility broadband systems. When the developer talked to the electrical utility that already had fiber along most of their system, the utility explained that the law tied its hands, but there was a loophole. The utility offered to lease dark fiber to the developer at giveaway prices to connect the development. The utility subsidized the cost of the system as a way of protesting the law. The FOA has introduced the developer to some contractors, and the project is moving ahead.
Around the United States, there are hundreds of projects like these, and some may be in your backyard. Keep your eyes open for opportunities.