A Last Gasp at Regulating Copper

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission recently ordered a series of public hearings to investigate the quality of service on the CenturyLink copper networks. The hearings were prompted by a complaint filed by the Communications Workers of America (CWA). The complaint listed the failures of CenturyLink to meet state service standards due to the deterioration of the copper network. CWA also noted that CenturyLink is planning to eliminate half of the remaining technicians who work on copper.

Similar inquiries by other state regulators have been instituted in the last few years against CenturyLink and Frontier. I feel sorry for any customers left on deteriorating copper networks, but proceedings like this one feel like the last gasp of regulators trying to score points by beating up on the telcos that still operate copper networks.

Not that CenturyLink doesn’t deserve a lot of criticism. Its copper networks are in dreadful condition and are in the process of dying. The poor condition of the networks is due in large part to the decades-long lack of maintenance and repairs. We know this is the case because copper networks of a similar age are still operating much better in Europe. The big telcos like CenturyLink, Frontier, Verizon, and AT&T stopped caring about copper networks back in the 1990s, and the networks have been in a steady decline since then.

But U.S. copper networks are truly near the end of life. It’s impossible to neglect maintenance for over twenty years and somehow suddenly make the networks perform better. It’s hard to fathom the intentions of having regional hearings on the topic for any purpose other than letting people vent their frustration with CenturyLink. It’s hard to imagine anything changing as a result of these hearings that will improve service. There might be new fines levied on CenturyLink, but that’s less costly for the company than trying to make the copper work.

Some big telcos are working to convert copper networks to fiber. Frontier and Windstream are building a lot of fiber – and I assume they are overlashing the new fiber wires on the old copper. AT&T and Verizon are selectively expanding fiber in neighborhoods where the cost of construction meets some internally set cost test – but these two companies are quietly moving most copper customers onto cellular connections.

CenturyLink has been up and down on the decision to overbuild residential fiber. It currently looks like the company is only building ‘strategic’ fiber, which I interpret to mean business districts and large apartment complexes. It seems unlikely that CenturyLink will overbuild much more of its residential copper in Minnesota or elsewhere with fiber.

I would bet that if CenturyLink could wave a magic wand and be rid of copper, it would do so. It’s harder each year to maintain copper networks, and a move to eliminate half of the remaining copper technicians shows that the company is finally throwing in the towel. But giving up on copper still means walking away from a lot of revenue.

There are still plenty of customers who want to keep using the copper networks. Say what you want about the inadequacies of DSL, but in most urban markets where my firm does surveys, we still find 10% to 20% of households are still using DSL. These are households for whom the price is more important than broadband speed.

CenturyLink and the other big telcos have recaptured the cost of the copper networks many times over and decided many years ago not to reinvest profits back into new and upgraded networks. We’re now reduced to watching the last death throes of copper networks, and it’s not pretty.

4 thoughts on “A Last Gasp at Regulating Copper

  1. Good points Doug but there are still areas that copper is critical in addition to the fiber due to lack of available commercial power. We build copper on our fiber to ensure we can power networks in areas where power is not available or is subject to outages. Our copper networks are still saving lives in our very rural areas as they provide a lifeline to those who are not able to receive our fiber, yet, or who have power concerns especially during natural disasters such as fires. Landlines are lifelines in deeper rural areas. We do reinvest in our copper network and still see its value whereas some other companies are just letting their copper infrastructure deteriorate. So we may be an outlier in this day and age but it is critical for our customers.

    • Hello, Russ–your comment sounds as though you work for/own a telecom company speaking for maintenance of tried-and-true copper wire. I wonder if we might communicate–I’m fighting to save the copper-wire service in my area, and I think I probably need a telecom attorney. Or, at the very least, some good information to help in my fight.

  2. I think you would find that the total loop cost of an all fiber network would match or be less than a copper network. Fiber was not adopted and DSL emphasized due to the massive amount of depreciation to be taken out of the existing cooper networks. I think there is an opportunity now to take fiber to the last customer in you backbone and make a large retirement of copper to offset a large portion of your capital program. I think the large telcos are playing that game. Note: in their network filings that they are stating there are no services in the DA,s they are retiring copper. they are also wanting to edge out the fiber sticking to high density areas.

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