The Evolution of the Fiber Business Plan

Fiber CableThe other day it struck me how much the telecom consulting business has changed over the last decade. A decade ago a huge amount of the focus of an FTTP feasibility study was about integration. And today all of the emphasis is about finding the money to pay for fiber.

Integration is the effort required to make the equipment from different vendors work together. In the early days of the FTTP industry this was a very big deal because there were different issues with every brand of electronics in the industry. There was nothing at all automatic about getting a cable TV headend or telephone voice switch working on a given fiber network.

A lot of the work involved in choosing a brand of electronics was deciding which brand had the least number of bad things that wouldn’t work on an FTTP network. There was a time when very basic things like supporting a fax line or provisioning a T1 on FTTP was an issue. There were tons of problems getting some telephone features to work. And no matter what the vendors told you, when it came time to get a new network up and running all sorts of new surprises would pop out after each new software release from the many vendors. It got so bad that we were recommending not updating software at one point.

Sometimes the integration issues were significant. I had one client who was the first one to try an IPTV cable headend on their FTTP network and they had a huge number of headaches. The integration caused them a delay with their launch and their problems with cable delivery were so bad that they got a bad name in their market that took years to overcome.

But today there is almost no worry about making things work on an FTTP network. Most products are now delivered as native Ethernet and all of the work of decoding the signals is done by smart devices like set-top boxes or modems rather than in the fiber electronics. I can’t recall having used the word integration for many years, which is refreshing compared to a time when we had to practically scare clients to make them understand that they were going to see surprises and have delays every time they launched a new product on their network.

Today we are able to make a pretty reliable estimate of the cost of the electronics and know that when it comes time to get into the business that whatever major brand of electronics is chosen will work well.

Today our emphasis has instead turned towards figuring out how to pay for building a fiber network. This has never been easy, but it seems like all of the old avenues of financing – be that bank loans or municipal bonds – are harder to close these days than in the past. In the last fifteen years banks have tightened up significantly compared to the times before the housing meltdown of a few years ago. And municipal bonds for fiber are a harder sell due to a few failures of municipal revenue bonds for fiber as well as a tougher bond market in general.

I find that I spend far more time these says working on financing and as a firm we spend far less time working on engineering issues. I now warn clients that funding will be the big hurdle where in the past it was the worry of successfully getting all the products to work right. I now put a whole lot of emphasis up front with a new client on finding a business plan that they can take to the bank. I know that bankers are going to scrutinize every assumption and that there has to be a lot of safety margin in any business plan so that it will remain solvent even if it does worse than hoped for.

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