AT&T has the largest retrenchment and is trimming 2023 plans from 3.5 to 4 million passings back to 2 to 2.5 million. The company says that it is not changing its long-term goal to reach 30 million passings with fiber, but a cutback of this size means it won’t likely reach that target in 2025.
Lumen’s new CEO Kate Johnson said the company is taking a pause while it rethinks its path forward. In doing so, the company trimmed 2023 fiber expansion plans from 1.75 million passings to something under 1 million.
Cowen says other big ISPs will also trim plans a bit. Frontier is probably trimming 2023 plans from 1.6 million to 1.4 million passings. Altice is cutting expectations back from 1.6 million to 1.5 million. Consolidated is reducing 400,000 planned new passings to 350,000.
There are other fiber builders that don’t seem to be cutting plans. Brightspeed, Metronet, and others still seem to be on track for their 2023 plans.
But cutbacks of the size of the AT&T and Lumen plans raise some questions about the trajectory of fiber overbuilding. If construction plans announced two years ago had held steady, there was a massive push to build fiber networks to compete with cable companies. Do these cuts mean that fiber competition won’t materialize as planned?
There have been big external changes affecting the entire industry. Fiber material costs are up, as evidenced by the recent price hike announced by Corning. Prices of fiber components are up across the board for everything from conduit, handholes, drop wires, etc. A bigger cost impact is the cost of labor, with technicians labor rates rising across the industry.
Fiber construction is also not immune from interest rate increases. I already have some clients thinking of shelving fiber expansion projects until interest rates come back to earth.
All of this adds up to a lower return for fiber builders. I was always a bit mystified by the frenetic planned pace of fiber expansion craze in cities since the returns have never been spectacular. I’ve always assumed the push to build fiber has been more of a land grab as big ISPs see other fiber builders encroach on areas they want as markets. I think much of the fiber construction craze has been about either building now or getting locked out of markets in the future.
Any level of cutbacks is good news for cable companies, since the above cutbacks mean several million fewer fiber passings to compete with by the end of 2023. Any relaxing of the competitive pressure gives cable companies more time to upgrade upload speeds over the next three years. I have to wonder if the cable company’s plans to increase upload speeds play into any of the decisions to cut back on fiber expansion. It would be really interesting to sit inside the Board rooms as the big ISPs debate these strategies. The broadband environment is getting more complex by the day.