Watching Networks Die

old telephone wiresA few weeks ago I went to Phoenix, and in driving around various neighborhoods I noticed a lot of problems with the copper network. I was out in an outer suburb, in horse country where the lots are large and where most people live back long unpaved lanes. It was a rural area, but a pretty upscale rural area. What I saw was that a number of poles were looking pretty ragged, with some looking ready to fall down in a stiff wind. But what was most noticeable was that a lot of pedestals looked to be in bad shape. Many had been knocked over at some point in the past and were lying on the ground. Some were cracked open leaving the wiring exposed. But my favorite was a pedestal that was held up against a stop sign using duct tape.

A few months ago I reported on a telephone network on an Indian reservation where the carrier cabinets were hanging wide open exposing the electronics to the elements. And this wasn’t in the dry southwest desert but in the snowy northern plains. That same network had telephone cables draped for long distances over the tops of barbed wire fences.

I also did a Google search and it appears that it has become a common practice to leave cables running across sidewalks. I know when I got cable service at my house that they ran the cables across the sidewalk and the yard, but within a week a crew showed up and buried it. But I am reading about cases where telephone or coaxial cable has been left lying across sidewalks for years at a time.

I can’t recall ever hearing of this practice until sometime during the last decade. Before that the cable or telephone companies simply did not string cables over the ground for more than a day or so as part of a new installation.

It certainly is possible for poorly maintained cables to lead to disaster. Years ago when I worked for CP National, one of our customers in rural Nevada was killed when they strangled on a low hanging cable they ran into while horseback riding. That certainly is a rare occurrence, but it is not hard to foresee all sorts of problems arising when cables are left where they can touch people.

I also recently read an article at Stop the Cap that gave pictorial and video evidence of cables that have been draped permanently over backyard fences or left on the ground for long periods of time. That same article talks about how Cleveland has dozens of complaints about telephone wires that have been cut and are dangling to the ground. The City has tried to get AT&T to fix the dangling cables, but it turns out that due to deregulation the City has no legal authority to require the company to clean up its mess.

One can think of many reasons why we are seeing more and more of these kinds of situations. A lot of carriers are now using contract labor that is paid by the installation, which gives them the incentive to take shortcuts to finish jobs quickly. Years ago installations were done by trained employees who worked to good standards and who took the time to make sure that an installation was done correctly,

The issue in Cleveland is probably the result of competition. As competitors bring new service to a home they often just cut the old service drop without caring what happens to it. This seems like something that state Commissions could deal with, even in this day of declining regulation.

But the really bad networks like the ones I saw in Phoenix and the ones on the Indian reservation are due to the total neglect of the copper network by companies that plan to walk away from copper at some point.  Both AT&T and Verizon have made it clear to the FCC that they both tend to walk from large swaths of their rural networks within just a few years.

The large telcos have systematically ignored rural areas. They have closed customer service centers and cut back on maintenance staff to the point where an average rural installer is often in charge of a huge geographic area. It often takes more than a week to get a technician to the house when a customer has a problem.

The big telcos don’t neglect all copper, just the rural copper. CenturyLink serves the area where I live and the network looks to be in great shape. This is partly due to the fact that the town I live in was devastated a decade ago by hurricane Charley and much of the plant has been rebuilt. But this is also an upscale area where CenturyLink is pushing their Prism TV product, which requires a decent copper network. But I don’t have to travel too far inland away from the water in Florida to see older and more neglected networks.

The neglect of rural networks is not new. The large telcos have severely cut back on copper maintenance for years and even decades in rural areas. It was widely reported by people I know in West Virginia that Verizon basically walked away from the rural parts of the state almost 25 years ago when they decided to sell the whole network to somebody else. It took them almost two decades to find a buyer and in the meantime the copper network degraded significantly. I have a nephew there who is a lineman for Frontier, who now owns that network, and he is not sure that what is left can ever be made to work well.

It seems pretty clear that the telcos are going to walk away from copper. And so perhaps it does no real good to complain about the quality of the copper networks they plan to abandon. In just a few years we will instead be talking about a whole lot of rural people who won’t even be able to get dial-tone to access dial-up Internet. Very rural places are just going to have a harder and harder time being connected to the rest of us.

4 thoughts on “Watching Networks Die

  1. Its worse than that. In my book “I’ll Vote for You If You Make My Netflix Work”, there is a photo of what appears to be the fiber optic cable connecting all of Gunnison County, CO to the rest of the world zip tied to a barbwire fence. The copper plant in many exchanges is over 50 years old and conductivity of the wire precludes any potential for broadband speeds. What is curious is that competent potential buyers of CenturyLink exchanges generally get the blow-off when attempting to make offers to buy whole exchanges. Fun Fact From Frank: It is estimated that British Telecom might be worth more in terms of scrap copper wire than actual market cap. Perhaps the same can be said of CenturyLink and others?

    • I worked for Ma Bell pre-divestiture and in those days there would never have been any of this kind of network shoddiness. AT&T in those days paid attention to the details and a result of that the quality of the network was superb.

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