CenturyLink Expanding Fiber

CenturyLink recently announced its fiber plans for 2020 and says it will be building to pass 400,000 homes and businesses with fiber this year as a follow-up to 2019 that saw the company add 300,000 passings. Like with all big telco announcements, a bit of looking behind the scenes is needed to understand what the company is doing.

In 2017 CenturyLink was engaged in a major fiber expansion plan and built that year to pass 900,000 homes and businesses, mostly in large cities and surrounding suburbs in places like Seattle, Phoenix, and Denver. Those expansions plans were put on hold when new CEO Jeff Storey replaced the telco-minded Glen Post. One of Storey’s first announcements as CEO was that the company was no longer going to pursue capital projects with ‘infrastructure returns’ and building FTTH came to a screeching halt.

It was a lot harder than Storey might have hoped to inject the Level 3 mindset into a 100-year-old telco, and the company bogged down and stock prices dropped. Starting last year, the company started talking again about aggressively expanding its fiber network to add large buildings to the network. The company recently said it had connected to over 18,000 buildings last year. In digging deeper into things the company discussed over the last year, it seems that those buildings were a combination of multi-tenant business buildings and apartment complexes. The company also said that it was building a lot of the new fiber in 2019 to reach small cell sites.

The company also recently announced that it had added 300,000 passings as a result of the fiber expansion last year – a number that I can’t find mentioned as a goal last year. This does not mean that the company built fiber to pass 300,000 homes. Many of the passings came from the 18,000 buildings that were added to the network. CenturyLink has also entered into a contract to operate the fiber network in Springfield, MO – a network that is funded, built, and owned by the City. The 85,000 or so passings from that project seem to be included in the fiber passings claimed for 2019 and planned for 2020.

CenturyLink says it plans to add 400,000 fiber passings this year. The company is still aggressively adding buildings to the network and is also still building to small cell sites. The markets on the list for this year’s expansion include Denver, Omaha, Phoenix, Portland., Salt Lake City, Spokane, Springfield, MO, and a few others.

CenturyLink says the fiber expansion is starting to pay off. While the company lost a net of 11,000 broadband customers in the first quarter of this year, they added 60,000 subscribers with speeds of 100 Mbps or faster. Those gains were part of the industry gain of over 1.1 million broadband customers in the first quarter – at least some of which came as a result of the needs of employees and students being forced to work from home.

The company has gotten back into the infrastructure business somewhat reluctantly but now seems to have embraced some aspects of fiber expansion. CenturyLink is still bullish about adding buildings to the network and are at number four in terms of on-net buildings. I would be surprised if the fiber expansion includes any significant construction to reach single-family homes. It seems a lot more likely that the company is picking off low-hanging fruit in places where it is installing fiber to reach small cell sites or lucrative buildings. That’s the same philosophy that helped AT&T add over 12 million fiber passings over the last few years.

Jeff Storey is still adamantly painting a picture of a company that is focused on enterprise services and business applications. Any expansion into residential neighborhoods is likely a by-product of taking advantage of fiber built to pursue the primary goal.

But no matter how they are getting there, it’s good to see CenturyLink building fiber again. In 2018 it looked like they might permanently duck out of fiber construction. However, the stock market disappointment, and perhaps seeing AT&T success with limited fiber expansion convinced management some that fiber can earn more than infrastructure returns.

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