Sonic – the Transition from UNEs to Fiber

In my continuing series of writing about interesting competitors, today’s blog is about Sonic, a CLEC and fiber overbuilder working in the San Francisco Bay area and other communities in California. It’s an interesting company because they are the poster child for building a competitive telecom company based upon the rules established by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. That Act required that the large telephone companies unbundle their networks to allow competitors to use their copper lines.

Sonic got started in 1994 as an ISP, then became a CLEC in 2006 and followed the path envisioned by the 1996 Act. This meant collocating electronics in AT&T central offices to provide DSL to customers over unbundled copper loops (UNEs). The company found a receptive customer base since they offered faster broadband than AT&T’s at an affordable price. They grew to be collocated in 200 AT&T central offices around the Bay Area, Sacramento and greater Los Angeles. These offices are tied together by the use of unbundled interoffice transport – also created by the 1996 Act. They originally deployed DSL that used one copper pair but have migrated to VDSL2 and other faster versions of DSL that use two copper pairs and delivers significant bandwidth. They still have almost 50,000 customers in the region using this technology.

What’s interesting is that Sonic did this starting in 2006 – a time by which much of the rest of the industry had written off the use of telco copper. The UNE business plan got a sour reputation with many in the industry when the CLEC industry using UNEs spectacularly imploded in 2001-2002. This collapse of the CLEC industry was due to a perfect storm of economic events and had little to do with the benefits of using telco copper.

If anything, it’s easier to use telco copper today because today’s DSL technology is far better than the DSL in 2000. Sonic and other CLECs are able to provide fast and reliable broadband using ADSL2+ and VDSL2, bonded over multiple copper pairs. Most people in the industry are probably surprised to hear that Sonic can use bonded copper UNEs to provide speeds as fast as 400Mbps to serve businesses. The usefulness of unbundled UNEs is far from dead.

Sonic also reaches roughly 25,000 customers using resale. This allows them to sell the same DSL products sold by AT&T in locations where they don’t have collocations. All of the Sonic products offer a bundle with a voice product that includes all of the expected features plus unlimited calling to the US and to landlines in 66 other countries. They are still finding strong demand for the voice product – something that also might surprise many in the industry.

Five years ago the company decided to use the cash flow from the UNE business to build fiber. Their fiber network now covers roughly 1/3 of the City of San Francisco, plus Brentwood, Sebastopol, Albany, Kensington and Berkeley in the East Bay. They are eying other markets around the region, the state, and beyond. They are an aggressive competitor and their fiber product line starts with a symmetrical gigabit for $40 per month, bundled with the unlimited voice product. They won’t publicly disclose the number of fiber customers, but their goal is to soon have more customers on fiber than on DSL. In my opinion, this is the essence of the vision of the 1996 Act – a transition from UNEs to facility-based networks.

The company’s biggest worry right now is that the FCC recently got a petition from the large telcos asking to end the use of unbundled network elements (UNEs). The big telcos argue that the UNE business plan is obsolete and that there is sufficient competition in the marketplace without unbundling their copper – while also claiming that “In the residential marketplace, competition will not be materially affected by forbearance from Section 251 ( c )(3) because there is effectively no remaining UNE-based competition in that marketplace.” and that “To the extent CLECs serve residential customers using ILEC facilities, they do so on commercial platforms.

But Sonic and a number of other CLECs using UNEs show this to be untrue. Given that just Sonic alone serves nearly 50,000 California households with UNEs these claims are incorrect and misleading. Sonic is using the unbundled copper in exactly the manner envisioned by Congress when they wrote the 1996 Act – to allow competitors to place the best technology possible on the telco copper networks. The Congress at the time reasoned that telephone ratepayers had paid for the copper networks and that the public ought to derive any benefits possible from the networks they had paid for.

The big telcos have always hated the idea of unbundling their networks. They have slowly chipped away at some of the products envisioned by the 1996 Act such as access to telco dark fiber. They would love to kick CLECs like Sonic off their networks – and in Sonic’s case that would deprive 50,000 customers of fast DSL and telephone service at prices they can afford.

Almost every major market in the country, and many smaller ones have CLECs that use unbundled network elements to provide DSL – usually the newer and faster DSL that the telcos won’t invest in. The telcos are slowly walking away from DSL which can be seen by the huge numbers of customers switching to the cable companies.

But CLECs like Sonic have used the copper to bring products that people want – and, unlike the telcos they are pouring those profits back into building fiber to these same communities. That’s exactly what Congress had in mind in 1996 and it would be a shame to see the FCC choke off some of the companies who are offering a competitive alternative to the big cable companies.

Eliminating Unbundled Network Elements (UNEs)

At the urging of USTelecom, the lobbying arm for the big telcos, the FCC has opened WC Docket No. 18-141 that is seeking to eliminate the requirement for the big telcos to offer unbundled network elements (UNEs) or resale for their products. Comments are due in this docket by June 7, with reply comments due June 22.

The requirement for the big telcos to unbundle their networks was one of the primary features of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Congress at that time recognized that there was little competition in the telecom market and decided that allowing competitors to resell or use components of the big telco networks would help to jump-start competition. The idea worked and within just a few years there were giant CLECs created that used resale and UNEs to create large competitive telecoms. I recall that at least six different CLECs salespeople visiting the CCG offices located just inside the Washington DC Beltway. Most of those big competitive companies imploded spectacularly in the big telecom collapse in 2000, but there are still numerous companies utilizing the unbundled elements of the big telco networks.

The docket talks about forbearance, which in this case means ceasing a regulatory requirement, and specifically this docket asks the FCC to forbear:

  • Section 251 and 252 of the FCC rules that require the big telcos to resale or offer unbundled network elements to competitors;
  • Section 272 of the FCC’s rules that specify timelines for the telcos to negotiate or respond to requests for service from competitors;
  • Section 271 of the FCC’s rules that lay out the rights for competitors to gain access to poles, ducts, conduits and rights-of-way.

This forbearance would be devastating to a number of competitive carriers. Consider just a few examples of how the industry still uses these sections of the FCC’s rules:

  • There is still a lot of resale of telco products. I know one Northwest rural area where a competitor resells nearly 90% of the rural DSL provided by CenturyLink. This reseller gained the business by knocking on doors and selling DSL to homes that didn’t even know it was available from the telco. In much of rural America the big telcos have almost no employees, no marketing and no customer service and resellers are making big telco products work even where the telcos don’t make any effort.
  • There are still numerous DSL providers that collocate their own DSL electronics in telco central offices and then use the unbundled telco loops to provide decent DSL to customers. These competitors offer newer generation and faster DSL where the telcos are often still only offering slow first generation DSL from twenty years ago.
  • Facility-based fiber overbuilders regularly use unbundled network elements to operate in areas where they have not yet built fiber. Or they use UNEs to serve distant branches of a fiber customer – for instance they might use UNEs to create a private network between locations of a bank with branches in several communities.
  • Any competitor that wants to offer facility-based long distance in a metropolitan market must have a physical connection to the primary big telco switching locations (tandems) in that market. These connections are needed due to requirements that the telcos have forced upon competitors since the 1996 Act to try to make it more expensive to compete. Nobody would build the massive network needed to connect these office just to provide voice and so competitors satisfy this requirement using UNEs.
  • Competitors routinely want to make connections between carriers located at the big telco hubs. They make this happen by buying UNEs that reach between carrier A and B within these hubs (might only require a few feet of fiber).

All of these situation, and the many other uses of the resale and UNEs would disappear if the FCC sides with the big telcos. The big telcos set to work to neuter the requirements of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 right after it passed. Over the years they have eliminated many forms of resale. They have made it virtually impossible for a competitor to gain access to their dark fiber. They have routinely made it harder and harder each year for competitors by introducing changes in their contracts with competitors.

This forbearance would be a huge victory for the telcos. This would have a huge chilling impact on competition and customer choice. This would mean that the only way to compete with the telcos would be by overbuilding 100% to reach customers and to interconnect networks. Numerous competitive providers would be quickly bankrupted and disappear. Huge numbers of customers, primarily businesses, would lose their vendor of choice as competitive carriers would no longer be able to serve them. This could even kill wholesale VoIP since the underlying carriers providing that service rely heavily within their networks on interconnection UNEs.

The big telcos argue that they shouldn’t have to continue to unbundle their networks because these requirements deal mostly with legacy TDM technology. But this is not only copper technology and many of the UNEs used for interconnection are on fiber. And even where this is being done on copper, it makes sense for the FCC to allow competitors to use that copper for as long as it exists. Copper UNEs will die a natural death as the copper disappears, but until then, if a competitor can use that copper better than the telco they should be allowed to do so. Competitors have used UNEs and resale to build thriving businesses that benefit consumers by providing choice and lower prices. Forbearing on resale and UNEs would be another giveaway by the FCC to the big telcos at the expense of competition and customer choice.

If you are a small carrier that relies on resale or UNEs you need to file comments in this docket by June 7. They need to hear real life stories of small carriers and the customers you serve, and hear why they should not kill UNEs. You don’t need to be a lawyer to tell the FCC your story, especially not if you have a good story to tell.