One thing that I rarely hear talked about is how many of our long-haul fiber networks are aging. The fiber routes that connect our largest cities were mostly built in the 1990s in a very different bandwidth environment. I have a number of clients that rely on long-haul fiber routes and the stories they tell me scare me about our future ability to move bandwidth where it’s needed.
In order to understand the problems of the long-haul networks it’s important to look back at how these fiber routes were built. Many were built by the big telcos. I can remember the ads from AT&T thirty years ago bragging how they had built the first coast-to-coast fiber network. A lot of other fiber networks were built by competitive fiber providers like MCI and Qwest, which saw an opportunity for competing against the pricing of the big telco monopolies.
A lot of the original fibers built on intercity routes were small by today’s standards. The original networks were built to carry voice and much smaller volumes of data than today and many of the fibers contain only 48 pairs of fiber.
To a large degree the big intercity fiber routes follow the same physical paths, either following interstate highways, but to an even greater extent following the railroad tracks that go between markets. Most companies that move big amounts of data want route diversity to protect against fiber cuts or disasters, yet a significant percentage of the routes between many cities are located next to fibers of rival carriers.
It’s also important to understand how the money works in these routes. The owners of the large fibers have found it to be lucrative to lease pairs of fiber to other carriers on long-term leases called IRUs (indefeasible rights to use). It’s not unusual to be able to shop for a broadband connection between primary and secondary markets, say Philadelphia and Harrisburg, and find a half-dozen different carriers. But deeper examination often shows they all share leased pairs in the same fiber sheath.
Our long-haul fiber network infrastructure is physically aging and I’ve seen a lot of evidence of network failures. There are a number of reasons for these failures. First, the quality of fiber glass today has improved by several magnitudes over glass that was made in the 1980s and 1990s. Some fiber routes are starting to show signs of cloudiness from age which kills a given fiber pair. Probably even more significant is the fact that fiber installation techniques have improved over the years. We’ve learned that if a fiber cable is stretched or stressed during installation that microscopic cracks can be formed that slowly spread over time until a fiber becomes unusable. And finally, we are seeing the expected wear and tear on networks. Poles get knocked down by weather or accidents. Contractors occasionally cut buried fibers. Every time a long-haul fiber is cut it loses a little efficiency, and over time splices can add up to become problems.
Probably the parts of the network that are in the worst shape are the electronics. It’s an expensive proposition to upgrade the bandwidth on a long-haul fiber network because that means not only changing lasers at the end points of a fiber, but at all of the repeater huts along a fiber route. Unless a fiber route is completely utilized the companies operating these routes don’t want to spend the capital dollars needed to improve bandwidth. And so they keep operating old electronics that are often many years past their expected functional lives.
Construction of new long-haul fiber networks is incredibly expensive and it’s rare to hear of any major initiative to build fiber on the big established intercity routes. Interestingly, the fiber to smaller markets is in much better shape than the fiber between NFL cities. These secondary fiber routes were often built by groups like consortiums of independent telephone companies. There were also some significant new fiber routes built using the stimulus funding in 2008.
Today a big percentage of the old intercity fiber network is owned by AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink. They built a lot of the original network but over the years have also gobbled up many of the other companies that built fiber – and are still doing so, like with Verizon’s purchase last year of XO and CenturyLink’s purchase of Level3. I know a lot of my clients worry every time one of these mergers happens because it removes another of a small handful of actual fiber owners from the market. They are fearful that we are going to go back to the old days of monopoly pricing and poor response to service issues – the two issues that prompted most of the construction of competitive fiber routes in the first place.
A lot of the infrastructure of all types in this country is aging. Sadly, I think we need to put a lot of our long-haul fiber backbone network into the aging category.