I am often asked about ideas for building a fiber network that can make money. Right now in this country there is a huge opportunity that almost nobody is taking advantage of. There have been tens of thousands of miles of middle mile fiber built in the last five years using federal stimulus grants. Additionally there are other networks around the country that have been built by state or other kinds of grants. And there has also been fiber built to thousands of rural cell phone towers.
These networks are largely rural and in most cases the networks have only been used to connect small rural towns and to serve anchor institutions, or built to go only to cell towers. If you look at these networks closely you will see miles and miles of fiber that goes from county seat to small town to county seat with a few spurs serving schools, health facilities, junior colleges, city halls and cell towers. But for the most part the fiber has not been used to serve anything else.
The whole stimulus grant was cooked up quickly and was not a well-planned affair. They tried to make awards in every state and we ended up with a true hodge-podge of networks being built. In some cases it looks to me like networks to nowhere were built, but a large percentage of the stimulus grants went through rural areas where there are nice pockets of customers.
For years I have advocated a business plan that builds fiber in short spurs in situations where there is guaranteed success. For example, one might build to one large business whose revenue will pay for the fiber route. Or these days that is most likely going to be a cell tower. And so building to that single guaranteed customer can be a successful business plan.
However, any carrier who stops with that one customer is missing the real profit opportunity in such a build. The best business plan I can find today is to build to an anchor tenant and then doing everything possible to sign every customer that is passed to get to that new tenant customer. In economic terms you can think of the cost of the fiber build as a sunk cost. Generally in any business when you make a sunk-cost investment the goal is then to maximize the revenue that can be generated by the sunk cost.
And so, if the anchor tenant you have found can justify the fiber build and pay for the sunk-cost investment, then adding additional customers to that same fiber investment becomes a no-brainer in economic terms. The extra customers can be added for the cost of a drop and fiber terminal device, and in terms of return, adding a home or small business might have a higher margin than the original anchor tenant.
They key to making this business plan work is to keep it simple. You don’t need to be in the triple play business to add residential customers. Offering a very high-speed data connection for a bargain price is good enough to get a good long-term customer with very little effort required by the carrier. If you happen to already be in the triple play business and have all of the back-office support for such customers then you can consider this as an option, but offering only data is a profitable business.
And so the business plan is to look around you and see where there are facilities built but underutilized. The key to making this work is to get cheap transport to reach the new pocket of customers. By law the stimulus grants need to give cheap access to somebody willing to build the last mile. But commercial network owners are going to make you a good offer also for transport if you can bring them a new revenue opportunity in a place they didn’t expect it. So the key is to first work with the network providers and then look at specific opportunities.
And you possibly don’t even need much, if any staff to do this. There is already somebody maintaining the backbone fibers and they will probably be willing to support your fiber spurs. And it’s quite easy today to completely outsource the whole ISP function. The only thing that is really needed is the cash needed to build fiber spurs and connect customers. The more you have the better you can do, but you could build a respectable little business with only a few hundred thousand dollars.
If you are in a rural area there are probably dozens, and maybe hundreds of these opportunities around you if you look for them with the right eye. As the header of this blog says, opportunities abound.