Decommissioning Rural Copper, Part 2

In the last blog I wrote about my belief that AT&T and Verizon want out of the rural wireline business. They both have plans to largely walk away from their rural copper networks and replace landline copper services with cellular service. Today I want to talk about what regulators ought to do with those networks.

When these two giant telcos walk away from rural copper they will inevitably harm rural America. While many homes will get the ‘privilege’ of now buying highly-priced cellular-based broadband, other homes are going to find themselves without telephone service if they happen to live in one of the many cellular dead zones. Such homes will not only be unable to benefit from cellular broadband, but if they have poor cell service they will find themselves cut off from voice communications as well.

As somebody who has traveled extensively in rural America I can tell you that there are a lot more cellular dead zones than people realize. And it’s not only farms, and there are county seats in rural America where it’s difficult to get a working cellphone signal inside of buildings.

As part of this transition both companies are going to walk away from a huge amount of existing copper cable. I think this copper cable is an incredibly valuable asset and that regulators ought not to allow them to tear it down.

The copper wire network today goes almost everywhere in rural America. Congressional laws and FCC policies led to most homes in the country getting access the the copper network. These copper wires occupy a valuable space on existing telephone poles – on the majority of rural poles the only two wires are the power lines at the top and the telephone wires at the bottom.

If these copper wires are kept in place they could greatly reduce the cost of building rural fiber. It is far cheaper when building fiber to ‘lash’ the fiber onto an existing set of cables than to hang fiber from scratch. It was this construction technique that allowed Verizon to build a lot of its FiOS fiber network – they lashed fiber onto existing telephone wires. And my guess is that when Verizon decommissions urban copper they are still going to leave a lot of the copper wires in place as a guidewire for their fiber.

If these telcos are going to walk away from these copper wires, then they ought to be required to keep them in place for use by somebody else to hang fiber. Many states might force the big telcos to tear down the copper wires since they will eventually create safety hazards as they break away from poles if they aren’t maintained. But if somebody else is willing to take over that maintenance then it shouldn’t be an issue.

I can picture a regulatory process whereby some other carrier is allowed to come in and ‘claim’ the abandoned wires once they are empty of customers. That would provide fiber overbuilders or rural communities to claim this copper as an asset.

There is some salvage value to copper wires and and it’s possible, but not probable that the value of the copper could exceed the cost to tear it down. So I can see the telcos fighting such an idea as a confiscation of their assets. But these rural wires have been fully depreciated for decades and the telcos have earned back the cost of these copper lines many times over. I believe that by the act of abandoning the wires and depriving some homes of wireline service that the big telcos will have forfeited any rights they might have to the remaining assets.

Anybody claiming the abandoned copper could use it in two ways. First, in many cases there is still existing life left in the copper, as witnessed by Frontier and CenturyLink rehabbing old rural copper with upgraded DSL. Local communities or small carriers could use the copper to bring the better services that the big telcos have refused to do over the last few decades.

But more importantly these wires represent the cheapest path forward for building rural fiber. Anybody taking over the old copper can save a lot of fiber construction costs by lashing fiber onto the existing copper. If our nationwide goal is really to get better broadband to rural America, then offering abandoned copper to fiber builders might be one of the easiest tools available to help the process along.

The big telcos abandoned rural America dacades ago. They stopped doing routine maintenance on rural copper and slashed the number of rural technicians. They now want to walk away from that copper and instead force rural America to buy cellular services at inflated prices. We owe it to the folks who paid for this copper many times over to get some benefit from it and to offer an alternative to the new rural cellular monopolies.

9 thoughts on “Decommissioning Rural Copper, Part 2

  1. Great post. What makes it cheaper to overlash on existing copper versus not overlashing. I’ve never been up a pole to lay fiber, so have no idea on this.

    With overlashing I guess the fiber is manually wrapped around the existing copper wire? Versus without overlashing, the fiber is hung from a pole and unsupported between poles? (Or is there some other support?)

    What is the cost reduction approximately, by overlashing over existing copper? 50%?

    Regards, Peter.

    • There is no standard answer on how much cheaper. Overlashing has two cost savings:
      1) Construction is faster since there is no need to add brackets to each pole to hold fiber. And labor is the most expensive component of fiber construction.
      2) eliminates make-ready. That’s the industry term for making poles ready to use. That might mean moving other people’s wires if they are in the way or even replacing poles if they are too short for a new wire (and in many rural areas poles are short).

      The savings could be relatively small, maybe 15% or could be huge, over 50% depending on the local situation.

  2. A couple of thoughts:
    1. Here in Colorado, rural WISPs are filling the void left by inadequate internet and voice services. This “invisible hand of the market place” may ultimately provide the solution to the decline and fall of copper at no cost to rate payers/taxpayers
    2. 7 years ago, it was assumed that British Telecom was worth more as a reserve of scrap copper (all their copper wire) than their market cap. Could the same be said of CenturyLink, Windstream, others?

  3. If I were you, I would definitely spread the word on this idea. AT&T and Verizon don’t want the copper wireline anymore and seizing those unwanted assets is a great idea. And you are right, those two are not going to give up those unwanted assets without a fight.

    • AT&T and Verizon don’t want the copper wireline anymore and seizing those unwanted assets is a great idea. And you are right, those two are not going to give up those unwanted assets without a fight.

      I can’t see those companies just walking away.. Frontier and CenturyLink may have crap service right now but look what they were sold.. Badly neglected copper plant that they significantly over-stated it’s quality..

      Frontier got duped by the ‘used car salesmen’ and is stuck with it..

      I really do feel bad for Frontier for their last acquisition.. Excellent long term goals for the population but lost a lot of money in the purchase and is stuck trying to work with what they have..

      It would be awesome if the big companies would just walk-away from their copper plant and give it to someone else, but I just don’t see it happening.. At best I think they give it to another company on a low-cost lease, and then when the network is fixed and working properly at a profit, just ending the lease and taking over..

  4. Hi so what I’m seeing hear is an opportunity for a possible wire dismantling engineer and one that’s willing to travel the county naw if this is so instead ov abandoning the wire for it to rot and have possible law suits on ya hands from falling wire I would love to be given an opportunity to to work with a small team and be given a salary with the understanding I keep the old wire for working bonus is there eney chance I cud av that opportunity thank you

    • It’s not quite that easy. The big carriers would have to fully abandon it, meaning it wouldn’t be used at all. In most towns, there is at least some copper being used to provide support for fiber that would not be abandoned. Finally, at the point that wire is completely abandoned legally, then a town can formally condemn it and tear it down. This has happened in the past with abandoned coaxial networks.

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