Home » fiber to the home » Recent Articles:

Telcos Pile Up Debt From Mergers & Acquisitions While Stalling Fiber Upgrades

Spending priorities: mergers & acquisitions, not upgrades.

Since 2012, two of the country’s largest phone companies spent enough money — $281.4 billion — to wire at least three-quarters of the  nation with fiber-to-the-home service and deliver vastly improved rural internet access to the rest of the country. Instead of doing that, AT&T and Verizon used the money to buy their competitors and content creators including AOL and Yahoo.

A 2017 Deloitte Consulting analysis estimates the United States will need between $130 and $150 billion in investment over the next 5–7 years to upgrade at least 75% of homes and businesses to fiber to the home service, with the remaining 25% serviced by technologies including 5G that are capable of delivering broadband speeds greater than the federal minimum standard of 25/3 Mbps.

AT&T could almost deliver the country a major broadband upgrade all by itself, having spent $138 billion on mergers and acquisitions in the past six years. Verizon could have easily handled the entire cost, but instead spent its $143.4 billion on business deals, including $130 billion to buy out former Verizon Wireless partner Vodafone. Among independent phone companies, things look equally bad. Frontier Communications is saddled with so much debt after acquiring former AT&T customers in Connecticut and Verizon customers in more than a dozen states, it has been forced to suspend its shareholder dividend and has been only able to make token investments in network upgrades for its mostly copper wire infrastructure in its original “legacy” service areas and a mixture of copper and fiber in acquired service areas. Both CenturyLink and Windstream have refocused many of their business activities on the commercial services marketplace, including the sale of hosting, business IT services, and cloud server networks.

More recently, both AT&T and Verizon have raced into content company acquisitions, buying up AOL, Yahoo, and Time Warner to offer their respective customers additional content. The phone companies are diversifying their business interests away from simply offering phone lines and internet access. At the same time, many of these acquisitions are depleting resources that could be spent on critical network upgrades.

The article in Light Reading claims the telecom industry’s traditional financial model of borrowing money to build networks and upgrade others is broken, because telecom companies now prefer to spend money acquiring other companies instead. Although AT&T has, in recent years, been more aggressive than Verizon in deploying fiber to home service, both companies have resisted committing large amounts of capital to a territory-wide fiber buildout, preferring to spend smaller sums to incrementally upgrade their networks in selected areas over the next decade. But the merger and acquisition teams at both companies are far less cautious, given the go ahead to pay handsomely for companies that often have little to do with providing telephone or internet service.

Light Reading reports AT&T’s debt climbed from $59 billion in 2010 to $126 billion at the end of 2017. Verizon’s debt increased from $45 billion to $114 billion. But those acquisitions have done little to attract new customers. Both companies’ operating cash flows have barely budged — $39 billion annually at AT&T (up from $35 billion) and Verizon’s actually declined from $33 billion in 2010 to $25 billion in 2017.

Mergers and Acquisitions (2011-2018)

AT&T

  • 2012: AT&T buys $1.93 billion worth of spectrum from Qualcomm.
  • 2013: AT&T buys Leap Wireless (Cricket) for $1.2 billion.
  • 2014: AT&T pays $49 billion for the DirectTV, issuing $17.5 billion in debt in April.
  • 2015: AT&T buys out assets from bankrupt Mexican wireless business of NII Holdings for around $1.875 billion.
  • 2018: AT&T pays $207 million to acquire FiberTower.
  • 2018: AT&T is cleared to merge with Time Warner in a deal valued at more than $84 billion.

Verizon

  • 2011: Verizon acquires Terremark for $1.4 billion.
  • 2014: Verizon buys out Vodafone’s 45 percent stake in Verizon Wireless, valued at $130 billion, with a mixture of stock and debt.
  • 2015: Verizon buys AOL for a deal valued around $4.4 billion.
  • 2017: Verizon acquires Yahoo Internet assets for $4.5 billion.
  • 2017: Verizon buys spectrum holder Straight Path Communications for $3.1 billion roughly double rival AT&T’s offer, to build up 5G spectrum and footprint.

The more debt (and debt payments) that pile up at the two companies, the less money will be available to spend on fiber upgrades. In fact, there is evidence these companies are hoping to further cut costs in their core landline network operations. Some regulators have noticed. Verizon was forced to make a deal with New York regulators requiring the company to spend millions replacing failing copper-based facilities and upgrade them to fiber and remove or replace tens of thousands of deteriorated utility poles. Verizon faced similar action in Pennsylvania.

AT&T has spent millions lobbying the federal government to permanently decommission rural America’s landline network and replace it with a wireless alternative, while also working to replace the current regulated telephone network with deregulated alternatives like internet and Voice over IP phone service.

Wall Street analysts have occasionally questioned or at least expressed surprise over some of the phone companies’ odd acquisitions:

  • Verizon acquired Terremark to beef up its cloud-based and server-hosting businesses. But shortly after acquiring the company, Verizon began replacing top management, sometimes repeatedly, and ultimately divested itself of its data center portfolio, including Terremark, just five years later.
  • AT&T bought DirecTV to help it reduce wholesale TV programming expenses for its U-verse TV subscribers. But DirecTV has lost more than one million satellite TV customers since AT&T acquired it in 2014, despite new marketing efforts to convince would-be U-verse TV customers to choose DirecTV instead.
  • Verizon saw value in web brands that were major players more than 18 years ago but are mostly afterthoughts today. The company spent almost $9 billion to acquire Yahoo and AOL, and their low quality content portfolios, which rely heavily on clickbait headlines, advertiser-sponsored content, and articles designed to maximize mouse clicks to boost the number of ads you see.

“The telcos are trying to diversify into content when they should instead be focused on their core business — building networks and charging for value-added technology,” said Scott Raynovich, founder and principal analyst at Futuriom. “It’s clear they see content as part of the value-add but customers so far don’t seem to be reacting that way. It’s clear they are allergic to paying higher prices for bundled content.”

AT&T and Verizon’s customers are not clamoring for more content deals. When surveyed, most want better internet service at more affordable prices.

AT&T Reiterates 5G Fixed Wireless is a Waste of Resources: Pushes Fiber to Home Instead

AT&T does not see fixed wireless millimeter wave broadband in your future if you live in or around a major city.

John Stephens, AT&T’s chief financial officer, today reiterated to shareholders that building a small cell network for urban and suburban fixed wireless service does not make much sense from a business perspective.

“It’s the cost efficiency,” Stephens told an audience at Cowen and Company’s 46th Annual Technology, Media & Telecom Broker Conference. “Once you [get] the fixed wireless connection from the alley to your house, that’s great you can do that, but you have to get it from the alley into the core network.”

Stephens

Stephens noted that once AT&T realized it would require a collection of small cells to hand wireless traffic off, “building that out can be very expensive when you’re likely doing it in an urban market in a residential area that already has a lot of fiber [or] a lot of competition [from] incumbent telephone and cable companies.”

AT&T sees a likely different future for fixed wireless based on in its ongoing trials underway in Austin, Tex. — selling the service to commercial and manufacturing customers with robotic equipment and other machinery that need instant and fast wireless communications to communicate with each other and back to a central point.

Stephens believes a better idea for its 30 million U-verse fiber-near-the-home customers is to extend fiber directly to those customers’ homes. Stephens said AT&T would be financially better off scrapping the remaining copper wire running the last 500 feet from a customer’s home or business to the nearest fiber-equipped pedestal and give customers dedicated fiber to the home service instead.

“It may be very inexpensive for us compared to the [5G] alternative and gives the customer a tremendous level of service,” Stephens added.

Where millimeter wave could make sense is in exurban and rural areas where clusters of homes could potentially be reached by fixed wireless, assuming there was fiber infrastructure close enough to connect those small cells to AT&T’s network. But AT&T seems to be more interested in applying the technology in commercial and Internet of Things (IoT) applications where wireless access can be essential, and would be much easier to deploy.

Verizon, in contrast, is expanding millimeter wave fixed wireless broadband trials, with the hope of selling a wireless home internet replacement.

Cable Broadband in 2025: DOCSIS 4.0 Could Raise Speeds as High as 60/60 Gbps

Phillip Dampier May 24, 2018 Broadband Speed, Consumer News 6 Comments

The next standard for cable broadband is due around 2025.

Just as the cable industry is widely introducing gigabit download speed supported by DOCSIS 3.1 technology, cable engineers are working on a way to boost upload and download speeds to as high as 60 Gbps (60,000 Mbps) starting as soon as 2025.

According to a new article in Light Reading, DOCSIS 4.0 (or DOCSIS.Next) represents a transformational leap of cable broadband technology. Jeff Finklestein, Cox Communications’ executive director of advanced technology, claims the next major broadband update will be able to use at least 3 GHz of RF spectrum available on existing coaxial cable for high-speed internet. That is more than twice the 1.2 GHz that being used by some cable systems for today’s DOCSIS 3.1 (and the 1.8 GHz that will be needed to support DOCSIS 3.1 FD, which will allow operators to dramatically boost upload speeds by 2020.)

Designed for the next decade, DOCSIS 4.0 will support 30/30 Gbps speed (or 60/60 Gbps if an operator is willing to dedicate up to 6 GHz for broadband). Today’s coaxial cable networks can use up to 10 GHz of RF spectrum in all, with some compromises and allowances to deal with possible signal ingress and other types of interference.

By the time DOCSIS 4.0 arrives, many cable operators will not mind delivering the majority of their available spectrum to broadband, because most are expected to eventually deliver a single broadband stream that collectively supports IPTV, digital phone, and broadband service.

Finklestein

To make the next generation of cable broadband possible, cable systems will likely need to reduce the amount of copper coaxial cable in their networks and push fiber optics deeper into neighborhoods. The more optical fiber the better — the technology is not hampered by coaxial cable’s limitations and degradation.

Engineers are also likely to shift away from DOCSIS 3.1’s orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) modulation and use advanced wave form technology instead.

While engineers are excited about the project, some suspect DOCSIS 4.0 may be a tougher sell for cable industry executives, asked to invest in another transformational broadband upgrade less than ten years after DOCSIS 3.1 was introduced. Many cable operators using older cable network plants will have to spend millions on overhauls and upgrades, and there is some question about whether that kind of additional investment in a Hybrid Fiber Coax (HFC) network platform makes sense. Altice certainly does not believe so, and in 2016 elected to scrap Cablevision/Optimum’s HFC network and replace it with fiber to the home service.

As cable companies push fiber deeper into their networks, the cost of taking fiber the rest of the way to customer homes and businesses is coming down as well.

The cable industry has generally dismissed fiber to the home service as an extravagant and expensive technology to deploy, arguing cable’s HFC networks can deliver the broadband speeds that are commercially in demand today, while working on upgrades like DOCSIS 4.0 to meet consumer and business demands tomorrow, without the cost of tearing up streets to lay optical fiber.

Conn. Regulator Bans Public Broadband to Protect Comcast, Frontier, and Altice from Competition

Connecticut’s telecommunications regulator has effectively banned public broadband in the state, ruling that municipalities cannot use their reserved space on utility poles if it means competing with the state’s dominant telecom companies — Comcast, Altice, and Frontier Communications.

The ruling by Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) is a death-blow for municipalities seeking to build gigabit fiber networks to offer residents the broadband speeds and services that incumbent phone and cable companies either refuse to provide or offer at unaffordable prices.

Among the petitioners appealing to PURA to protect them from competition is Frontier Communications, which owns a large number of utility poles across the state acquired from AT&T. The company was unhappy that municipalities were planning to use reserved space on state utility poles to construct fiber to the home networks that are generally superior to what Frontier offers consumers and businesses in the state. Other providers, like Frontier, said little about the early 1900s Connecticut statute that guarantees municipalities “right of use space” on poles until it became clear some communities were planning to threaten their monopoly/duopoly profits.

The law was originally written to deal with the dynamic telecommunications marketplace that was common in the U.S. during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Utility pole owners were confronted with a myriad of companies selling telegraph and telephone service — all seeking a place on increasingly crowded poles. Local governments could have been crowded out, were it not for the “Act Concerning the Use of Telegraph and Telephone Poles,” approved on July 19, 1905. It was one sentence long:

Every town, city, or borough shall have the right to occupy and use for municipal purposes, without payment therefor, the top gain of every pole now or hereafter erected by any telephone or telegraph company within the limits of any such town, city, or borough.

The law stood as written until 2013, when the legislature clarified exactly who could benefit from the use of “municipal gain.” Where the original law effectively protected reserved pole space for “municipal” use, the language was broadened in 2013 to read “for any purpose.”

Observers said the law was modified because of ongoing disputes with pole owners relating to planned municipal broadband projects. Frontier, in particular, has sought restrictive pole attachment agreements with communities trying to build out their broadband networks. In addition to accusations of foot-dragging over issues like “make ready” — when existing pole users move wiring closer together to make room for new providers, Frontier has tried to impose restrictive language on communities that would permanently restrict their ability to offer service. The most common restriction is to compel towns to agree to use their pole space exclusively “for government use,” which would restrict third-party providers hired to manage a community’s municipal broadband service.

PURA’s decision surprised many, because it completely ignored the 2013 language changes and relied instead on its perception of a conflict between state and federal laws. PURA ruled “municipal gain” establishes “preferential access” for towns and communities, and could be in conflict with the federal Communications Act, which mandates “non-discriminatory access” to utility poles, and prohibits local governments from blocking companies from providing telecommunications services.

“Providing municipal entities free access to the communications gain for the purpose of offering competitive telecommunications services … appears to be inconsistent with these principals and other aspects of federal law,” the decision reads.

In the early 20th century, vibrant competition meant a lot of utility poles were crowded with wires.

Except communities are not seeking to block providers looking to offer broadband service. These communities are seeking to become a provider. Pole attachment controversies typically relate to unreasonable limits on access to poles and allegations of price gouging pole attachment fees, not “preferential access.”

The end effect of PURA’s ruling: communities can use their pole space for government or institutional purposes only, such as building closed fiber networks available only in public buildings like libraries, schools, town halls, and police and fire departments. It also means any community seeking to build a fiber broadband network serving homes and businesses will either have to pay market rates for pole space, give up on the project, or place all the project’s wiring exclusively underground — a potentially costly alternative to aerial cable and one likely to cost taxpayers millions.

“We are very disappointed in the decision,” Consumer Counsel Elin Katz told Hartford Business. Katz is a strong supporter of municipal broadband. “It ignores the plain language of the statute, and by deciding that [municipal gain] cannot be used by our cities and towns to provide broadband to those affected by the digital divide, denies our municipalities a tool provided by the legislature for just that purpose.”

Frontier and the state’s cable and wireless companies, however, are delighted PURA has come to their rescue, calling its decision “fully consistent with the law.”

“Frontier Communications continues to support efforts to expand broadband access in Connecticut,” said spokesman Andy Malinowski. “PURA reached the correct result. This decision helps ensure the continuation of robust broadband competition in our state.”

The New England Cable & Telecommunications Association (NECTA), the cable industry’s regional lobbying group in the region, was also happy to see an end to unchecked municipal broadband growth and the competition it will bring.

“Our members, who pay millions of dollars annually to rent space on utility poles, offer competitive broadband services with speeds ranging up to 1 gigabit-per-second for residential Connecticut customers, in addition to offering speeds up to 10 gigabits for business customers,” noted NECTA CEO Paul Cianelli.

Other supporters of PURA’s decision include the wireless industry lobbying group CTIA and the Communications Workers of America — unionized employees at Frontier Communications who fear their jobs may be at risk if a municipal provider gives Connecticut customers an additional option for broadband service.

PURA’s decision leaves little room for municipal broadband expansion efforts that have been underway in the state for a decade. Most projects that cannot afford to pay for space on utility poles or the cost to switch to underground cable burial will probably not survive unless a court overturns the regulator’s decision or the state legislature clarifies state law in a way that makes PURA’s current interpretation untenable.

A number of groups are considering suing PURA to overturn its decision, noting the regulator completely ignored the very clear and understandable 2013 language that allows municipalities to use their allotted space on utility poles “for any purpose.” That purpose includes giving the state’s telecom duopoly some competition.

Hillsboro, Ore. Rejects Naysayers and Pushing Ahead With $50 Gigabit Public Broadband

Three years after Hillboro’s city council accepted the recommendation of a consultant that warned the city away from running its own residential fiber network, local officials have changed their mind and plan to extend the city’s institutional fiber network to homes and businesses, offering affordable $10 a month internet access, as well as gigabit speed for $50 a month.

The Oregonian reports Hillsboro Mayor Steve Calloway wants to move fiber back on the agenda because recent experiences in other western cities with public broadband networks found a much higher buy-in by local residents, with up to 50% willing to ditch Comcast, CenturyLink, Frontier and other providers in favor of fiber to the home service. A recent “conservative” estimate expected 36% of Hillsboro residents would sign up if given the chance. Ongoing complaints about poor customer service from Frontier Communications, the area’s phone company, only increased support for the public broadband initiative.

In 2015, a consultant hired to study the feasibility of offering public broadband in Hillsboro, the fifth largest city in Oregon, recommended against it, which caused the city council to shelve the project. Uptown Services said Hillsboro would have to spend around $66 million for what it felt would be a “marginally viable” fiber to the home network expected to grab only a 28% share of a market dominated by Comcast.

Despite the cost, more than 77% of respondents to a phone survey held at the time were interested in switching to the city’s municipal fiber network, if it was priced at least 10% less than the competition. Hillsboro’s fiber aspirations face significant cost challenges other communities don’t, because 80% of buildings in Hillsboro are served by buried cables, which cost much more to install over aerial cable strung between utility poles.

 

Hillsboro is a rapidly growing community, with plans to develop 8,000 new homes in South Hillsboro that could eventually house 20,000 people. The new housing construction offers a unique and affordable opportunity to place underground fiber optic cables in the same trenches already dug for electrical, cable, and telephone service.

The city plans to start the project by running fiber into lower-income areas of the Southwest Hillsboro/Shute Par area, to offer affordable access to residents for as little as $10 a month. More affluent customers will be able to select gigabit service for $50 a month — cheaper than what Comcast and Frontier offer.

To keep the impact on the city budget reasonable, Hillsboro city council is being asked to allocate $4 million annually for fiber rollouts starting in 2019, with an equal amount each year through 2024. City engineers estimate it will take a decade to completely wire the community of 92,000, located just west of Portland.

 

Search This Site:

Contributions:

Recent Comments:

  • Paul Houle: I can believe in AT&T's plan, but not Comcast. For better or worse, AT&T is going "all in" on video and is unlike other major providers in ...
  • Phillip Dampier: Yes, that battle with Northwest Broadcasting, which also involved stations in Idaho-Wyoming and California, was the nastiest in recent history, with s...
  • Doug Stoffa: Digital takes up way less space than old analog feeds - agreed. In a given 6 MHz block, the cable company can send down 1 NTSC analog station, 2-4 HD...
  • Phillip Dampier: Digital video TV channels occupy next to nothing as far as bandwidth goes. Just look at the huge number of premium international channels loading up o...
  • Doug Stoffa: It's a bit more complicated than that. Television stations (and the networks that provide them programming) have increased their retransmission fees ...
  • Alex sandro: Most of the companies offer their services with contracts but Spectrum cable company offer contract free offers for initial year which is a very good ...
  • John: I live in of the effected counties, believe it or not our village is twenty three miles from WSKG Tower, approxiamately eighty miles from Syracuse, WS...
  • Wilhelm: I'm in the Finger Lakes where Spectrum removed WROC-8 last Fall, but we still get other Rochester channels, WHAM-13, WHEC-10 and WXXI-21. I have to wo...
  • dhkjsalhf: "Another classic case of businesses being much smarter than governments." I don't know whether this was sarcastic or not, but I feel it's a sentiment...
  • New Yorker: It makes no sense. I wonder sometimes if raising the limits on how much money rich people giving to candidates could make it more expensive to buy of...
  • New Yorker: Will New York go through with the threat? As an upstater I have seen infrastructure projects drag on in cost and time (eg. 1.5 yrs to repair a tiny b...
  • Matthew H Mosher: Another classic case of businesses being much smarter than governments....

Your Account: