Decommissioning Rural Copper, Part 2

In the last blog I wrote about my belief that AT&T and Verizon want out of the rural wireline business. They both have plans to largely walk away from their rural copper networks and replace landline copper services with cellular service. Today I want to talk about what regulators ought to do with those networks.

When these two giant telcos walk away from rural copper they will inevitably harm rural America. While many homes will get the ‘privilege’ of now buying highly-priced cellular-based broadband, other homes are going to find themselves without telephone service if they happen to live in one of the many cellular dead zones. Such homes will not only be unable to benefit from cellular broadband, but if they have poor cell service they will find themselves cut off from voice communications as well.

As somebody who has traveled extensively in rural America I can tell you that there are a lot more cellular dead zones than people realize. And it’s not only farms, and there are county seats in rural America where it’s difficult to get a working cellphone signal inside of buildings.

As part of this transition both companies are going to walk away from a huge amount of existing copper cable. I think this copper cable is an incredibly valuable asset and that regulators ought not to allow them to tear it down.

The copper wire network today goes almost everywhere in rural America. Congressional laws and FCC policies led to most homes in the country getting access the the copper network. These copper wires occupy a valuable space on existing telephone poles – on the majority of rural poles the only two wires are the power lines at the top and the telephone wires at the bottom.

If these copper wires are kept in place they could greatly reduce the cost of building rural fiber. It is far cheaper when building fiber to ‘lash’ the fiber onto an existing set of cables than to hang fiber from scratch. It was this construction technique that allowed Verizon to build a lot of its FiOS fiber network – they lashed fiber onto existing telephone wires. And my guess is that when Verizon decommissions urban copper they are still going to leave a lot of the copper wires in place as a guidewire for their fiber.

If these telcos are going to walk away from these copper wires, then they ought to be required to keep them in place for use by somebody else to hang fiber. Many states might force the big telcos to tear down the copper wires since they will eventually create safety hazards as they break away from poles if they aren’t maintained. But if somebody else is willing to take over that maintenance then it shouldn’t be an issue.

I can picture a regulatory process whereby some other carrier is allowed to come in and ‘claim’ the abandoned wires once they are empty of customers. That would provide fiber overbuilders or rural communities to claim this copper as an asset.

There is some salvage value to copper wires and and it’s possible, but not probable that the value of the copper could exceed the cost to tear it down. So I can see the telcos fighting such an idea as a confiscation of their assets. But these rural wires have been fully depreciated for decades and the telcos have earned back the cost of these copper lines many times over. I believe that by the act of abandoning the wires and depriving some homes of wireline service that the big telcos will have forfeited any rights they might have to the remaining assets.

Anybody claiming the abandoned copper could use it in two ways. First, in many cases there is still existing life left in the copper, as witnessed by Frontier and CenturyLink rehabbing old rural copper with upgraded DSL. Local communities or small carriers could use the copper to bring the better services that the big telcos have refused to do over the last few decades.

But more importantly these wires represent the cheapest path forward for building rural fiber. Anybody taking over the old copper can save a lot of fiber construction costs by lashing fiber onto the existing copper. If our nationwide goal is really to get better broadband to rural America, then offering abandoned copper to fiber builders might be one of the easiest tools available to help the process along.

The big telcos abandoned rural America dacades ago. They stopped doing routine maintenance on rural copper and slashed the number of rural technicians. They now want to walk away from that copper and instead force rural America to buy cellular services at inflated prices. We owe it to the folks who paid for this copper many times over to get some benefit from it and to offer an alternative to the new rural cellular monopolies.

What Happens to Unused CAF II Funds?

Fiber CableI look around rural America and I see fiber projects being proposed or built in a lot of places by small companies. Some of these are new initiatives like the new RS Fiber Cooperative that is underway in Sibley and Renville counties in Minnesota. And a lot of these new projects are being built by rural telcos and telephone cooperatives into areas adjacent to where they have always served.

While these small companies are building fiber the FCC is giving nearly $9 billion to the largest telephone companies to expand rural broadband. This was done under a program called CAF II that is part of the Universal Service Fund. The largest recipients of the funding are CenturyLink, Frontier and AT&T.

The CAF II funding has embarrassingly modest goals and only requires that the money be used to bring rural broadband speeds up to 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. The big telcos have a very relaxed six years to get this done. The telcos are mostly going to accomplish this by extending fiber from rural towns, into the country to support rural DSL.

I’m sure since most of my readers are knowledgeable about broadband that they realize how pathetically slow the 10 Mbps goal is. Already today 10 Mbps is not really broadband, even by the FCC’s own definition. A household that gets upgraded to 10 Mbps is probably going to be happy to get off dial-up, but they will soon realize that they are still far worse off than most of the rest of the country.

And while 10 Mbps is slow at today’s demand it’s been clear for decades that household demand for broadband has been doubling about every three years, back to the earliest days of the slowest dial-up. The folks at the tail-end of the six-year upgrades are going to be two more doublings of demand behind, meaning that in six years that 10 Mbps will feel basically four times worse than it does today.

In looking around at rural fiber projects I see fiber being built in areas where the telcos are going to get the CAF II subsidies. I wonder what will happen to the CAF II funding being used for those areas? Will the large telcos build DSL anyway even though nobody is going to buy it? Or will they just pocket the federal money and do nothing in those areas?

I don’t see anything in the CAF II rules that makes the large telcos give back any of the money, and so I suppose they will just keep it. This whole program is one of the worst uses of public funding I have ever seen. It’s easy to imagine the hundreds of rural fiber projects this money could have seeded. But instead the big telcos will be building DSL and will likely be loading up the claimed costs of the upgrades so they can get by with the least amount of actual upgrades possible.

Since the telcos already own wires in the places that will get upgraded they will be able to build fiber by overlashing. That is a process of tying fiber to existing copper lines and was the primary technique used by Verizon to build their FiOS fiber network. Overlashing is the lowest cost method of fiber construction and shouldn’t cost more than $15,000 to $20,000 per mile. If the whole $9 billion was used to build fiber that would mean building between 450,000 and 600,000 road miles of fiber. Wikipedia says that the US has less than 3 million miles of roads in the US including city streets, so this money could bring fiber to a significant percentage of rural areas. Of course, probably half of the money needs to be used for electronics, but that still means that the telcos ought to be using the CAF II money to build more than 200,000 miles of rural fiber.

If this money had instead been used to seed fiber innovators it could have brought fiber to millions of rural customers. If used as matching grants the $9 billion could have been leveraged to build $40 billion or $50 billion of rural fiber. Instead, every place that gets upgraded to the slow DSL is still going to need fiber and, for all practical purposes will be no closer to a true broadband solution than they are today.