I’ve been watching AT&T and Verizon since I’ve been in the industry (including a short stint at Southwestern Bell in the early 80s). We are about to see both of these companies unravel their rural telco properties.
Verizon got ahead of the curve and has been selling off rural properties for a few decades, many of which ending up with Frontier. Verizon still serves some rural areas and probably has shed half of their rural customers. But there are still big swaths or rural Verizon customers in Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland and other northeastern states. Verizon benefitted from these sell-offs by selling completely depreciated and poorly maintained networks at high prices – as can be evidenced by how much Frontier is struggling to cover their massive debts. AT&T has sold almost no rural properties and still serves gigantic rural areas in dozens of states.
Both companies are clearly on a path to tear down the remaining rural copper networks and replace them with cellular wireless networks. There are both pros and cons for these transitions for rural customers.
On the plus side, many of these rural areas have never had broadband since these big telcos never extended their DSL to their rural service areas. We know that they could have extended DSL, because we have hundreds of examples of independent telephone companies that brought DSL to all of their customers, no matter how remote. But the big companies stopped spending money on rural properties decades ago. The remaining copper is now in terrible shape and one has to imagine that cellular voice is probably often as good or better than voice over these old copper lines.
There will now many customers who can buy fixed cellular broadband. This uses the same frequencies as the broadband for smartphones, but the cellular companies are pricing it to be a little less expensive. For many households the fixed-cellular broadband will be the first real broadband alternative they have ever had.
But there are also big downsides to this shift from old copper to cellular networks. First, cellular networks are effective for only a few miles from any given cell site. Anybody who has driven in rural America knows that there are cellular dead spaces everywhere. Any customers living in the cellular dead spaces are going to be left with no communications to the outside world. They’ll lose their copper and they won’t have cellular voice or data. This will be a huge step backwards for many homes.
The big telcos will be taking advantage of the fact that, as a cellular provider, they have no obligations to try to serve everybody. One of the reasons that we had nearly ubiquitous telephone coverage in the country is that telcos were the carriers of last resort in their service areas. They were required by law to extend telephone service to all but extremely remote customers. But that obligation doesn’t apply to a cellular carrier. We already have tons of evidence that the cellular carriers make no apologies to homes that happen to live out of range of their cellular towers. With no copper landlines left we will now have rural communications dead zones. It will be hard for anybody living in these dead zones to stay there and certainly nobody is going to build new homes in a place that doesn’t have cellular service.
There is a downside even for those households that get fixed-cellular broadband. The speeds on this service are going to be slow by today’s standards, in the range of 10 – 15 Mbps for those that live relatively close to a cellular tower, but considerably slower for customers at greater distances. The real downside to getting cellular data is that the speeds are not likely to get better in rural America for many years, even decades. The whole industry is abuzz with talk about 5G cellular making a big difference, but it’s hard to see that technology making much impact in rural areas.
I think this transition away from copper is going to catch a lot of rural people by surprise. These two big telcos have already started the process of decommissioning copper and once that gets full FCC approval the speed of decommissioning copper is likely to soon accelerate. I think a lot of homes are going to be surprised when they find out that the telcos no longer have an obligation to serve them.