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Can the Big Telcos Turn the Corner with Fiber?

I was asked an interesting question recently: will fiber help the big telcos turn the corner to success? It’s a good question when looking at telcos like Frontier, Windstream, Lumen, and any others who are late to the game for converting copper to fiber. There are a lot of factors that will come into play, so the answer is likely to be different by telco.

On the plus side is a general consensus by many households that fiber is the best technology. There is a sizable percentage of homes in any market that will move to fiber given a chance. I’m sure this differs by community, but my experience is that 20% to 30% of homes will almost automatically switch to fiber, and that percentage is likely growing. It seems that all of the talk about broadband over the last few years has sold the idea that fiber is a superior technology.

We know telcos are hoping this perception is true. AT&T is the most optimistic of the big telcos and says that it will get a 50% market penetration anywhere it builds residential fiber. That’s an extraordinary prediction after considering the 10%-15% of homes in most places that still don’t have broadband and another 10%-15% of homes that will choose the low-cost alternative like DSL or cellular broadband just because of price. A 50% market share would mean largely obliterating the cable company in a given market.

But any perceived superiority of fiber is going to be relatively short-lived as cable companies upgrade networks to have faster upload speeds. Fiber today is winning the battle for consumers who care about upload speeds – but what percentage of homes is that? Fiber also has noticeably better latency and jitter – a connection on fiber is perceived by the eye to be faster even if the speeds are the same. But how many households care about that?

Telcos have a long way to go to get back to a decent market share. By delaying the transition to fiber, big telco let cable companies clobber them quarter after quarter in taking away DSL customers. While they hope that having a superior technology will help them claw back those lost customers, it’s no slam dunk that they will. The cable companies have smartly bundled broadband with cheap cellular service. The telcos are also going to see fierce competition for price-conscious consumers as they see cellular broadband offered by T-Mobile, Verizon, Dish Networks, and maybe AT&T.

One of the biggest handicaps that telcos face is that they have destroyed their brand names through poor treatment of customers. Big telcos have slowly let the copper networks die by cutting back on maintenance staff. There are millions of consumers who have a poor opinion of a telco because of week-long DSL outages or repair technicians who never showed up. People are not going to easily forgive them. Perhaps the smartest ones of all will be Ziply and Brightspeed, which purchased copper from Frontier and CenturyLink and rebranded to feel like a new company.

Another challenge will be for the big telcos to earn a decent margin from the conversion to fiber. The big telcos have a cheaper path to upgrade than fiber overbuilders due to the savings from overlashing fiber onto existing copper wires. But they are still making a significant outlay to make the conversion. There is no new revenue to the telcos from existing copper customers they move to fiber – and that means that they are paying for the new fiber networks only with the revenues from customers they lure back from cable companies. We won’t know for a few years what that means for the bottom line, but my back-of-the-envelope math says they’ll have a hard time making any noticeable return on the conversion to fiber – at least for the first 5-10 years. In the long run, the fiber customers will become cash cows, just like what happened with copper customers in the past. But will the long run be good enough for Wall Street, which will want to see a fast turnaround?

I think many of the big telcos are banking on getting giant federal grants to help them get back on their feet. But there are a lot of factors that say this might not be the great strategy they are trying to sell. First, most grants will be in the range of 75% grant funding. But covering the 25% is still expensive when the cost to reach rural passings ranges from $7,000 – $15,000. There are also higher operating costs in rural America due to longer truck rolls.

The biggest hurdle for getting grants is that the awards are going to be made at the State level – there won’t be any FCC to influence through lobbying. Many states are beyond angry with the big telcos since they rightly blame them for the poor condition of rural broadband. Additionally, the most likely grant winner in any county will be the one that partners with the county. I’ve worked in nearly 100 counties in recent years, and not one of them had any desire to partner with one of the big telcos. I know the big telcos all have huge goals of winning grant funding – I’m going to be really surprised if they achieve it.

To summarize and answer the original question – there is no guaranteed path to success for a telco that finally gets around to converting to fiber. The incremental new revenues from the conversion may not be high enough to make the math work. The big telcos will be battling a negative public perception of them as quality and reliable ISPs. They might be successful just because of the advantages that fiber has over cable company copper networks – but those advantages might not be enough to make a bottom-line difference.

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