Several large telcos have announced big plans to expand fiber coverage, and I assume that also means heavily participating in the upcoming $42.5 billion BEAD grants that are aimed primarily at bringing better broadband to rural areas.
When Frontier came out of bankruptcy, the company announced plans to pass 6 million homes with fiber by 2025. As part of its Build Gigabit America plan, the company raised that goal to 10 million homes. Frontier already has undertaken the first step in that plan. It set a goal of 495,000 new fiber passings for 2021 but recently announced that it expects to hit 600,000 passings for the year.
AT&T also has big plans. The company has been steadily building a fiber customer base and announced at the end of the third quarter that it now has 5.7 million fiber customers, representing a 37% market share of its 15.4 million fiber passings. A year ago, AT&T announced a goal to pass 25 million homes and businesses by 2025 – another 10 million passings. CEO John Stankey announced recently that the federal infrastructure bill will entice AT&T to increase that goal to 30 million passings, adding 5 million rural passings.
Windstream didn’t express expansion plans in terms of passings but announced this past summer that it is embarking on a $2 billion fiber expansion plan. It seems likely that the federal grants will entice the company to tackle even more growth.
Consolidated Communications is passing 300,000 new potential customers with fiber this year and has plans to continue fast growth into the future. I couldn’t find any specific plan related to federal grants, but I speculate that the company is likely going to chase grants close to existing properties.
The big mystery is CenturyLink. The company is passing 400,000 locations with fiber this year. But the company also announced the sale of its copper networks in twenty states.
It’s likely that all of these telcos want to benefit from the huge upcoming federal grants. The easiest ways for telcos to take advantage of the federal grant is to plan to overlash fiber onto existing telco copper where the companies are already the incumbent. But if the grants are lucrative enough, they might seek grants in other areas as well.
It would be interesting to be a fly on the walls of the corporate board rooms of these big telcos to see how they feel having the huge federal funding flowing through the states. The big companies have always done well with subsidies coming directly from the federal government, such as the $11 billion CAF II subsidies.
But will the telcos do as well with funding being decided at the state level? State regulators and state governments across the country have been unhappy with the way that the big telcos abandoned rural telephone networks. Most states have been able to make an easy comparison between smaller telcos and cooperatives that have invested in rural fiber and the big telcos that have done as little as possible to keep rural networks operating.
I’m curious about the degree to which the big telcos might have burned their bridges with past behavior. I know a lot of state regulators and state broadband offices who will not want to see money going to the companies that were largely responsible for creating the rural broadband gap. Are states going to be willing to give another chance to these big telcos?
I am sure that the state politics involving these grants is going to get intense. Most of the broadband offices that will be awarding these grants will be understaffed and under a lot of pressure to spend the grant money on schedule. Legislators are bound to get involved in some states to try to steer the grant process, although the federal money must meet federal grant rules set by the NTIA. Governors will also weigh in on the issue, and in some states, the grant offices are part of the executive branch. State regulators who have tussled with the big telcos will weigh in. And the public is likely to make itself heard as communities are coalescing around grant applications.
It’s going to be nearly impossible to follow grant policies and trends everywhere when all fifty states will be embarking on a giant grant program at the same time. One thing is for sure – the next few years are going to be interesting.