There’s no question operators are eager to move away from copper and for good reason. In a recap of its recent Fiber-to-the-Future Conference, New Street Research’s Jonathan Chaplin noted “All the ILECs we spoke to seemed to agree that there are significant opex and maintenance capex savings to be gleaned from either replacing copper with fiber or FWB [fixed wireless broadband].” But Chaplin added Verizon executives said the regulatory process around retirement “isn’t straightforward” and he concluded “mass copper retirement is not right around the corner.”
Part of the problem is the sheer scale of the transition. NSR’s Blair Levin pointed out in a separate note Verizon still has approximately 12 million locations served with copper. Meanwhile, the team at MoffettNathanson noted copper subscribers account for around 60% of AT&T’s consumer wireline business. AT&T’s copper footprint currently covers around 60 million locations and while the operator is looking to cut that figure to 30 million by 2025, that would still leave it with 30 million locations to go. Chaplin deemed AT&T’s plan “optimistic” given the short timeline and regulatory challenges Verizon has encountered.
Operators like AT&T, Frontier Communications, Lumen Technologies and Brightspeed (assuming their acquisition of assets from Lumen is approved later this year) have all unveiled plans for major fiber deployments. But Dell’Oro Group VP Jeff Heynen told Fierce these won’t come fast enough or cover enough ground to spell the end of copper before the decade is out. He noted Dell’Oro is forecasting that by 2026 there will still be 400,000 DSL CPE units and around 130,000 new ports shipped in North America, which will be used for copper network maintenance.
“All of these operators have plans to overbuild with fiber, but it’s going to be around until the end of the decade. The thing is you can’t build out fiber that fast,” he explained. “When you’re doing fiber you’ve got far more labor and permitting that can extend the timeline, so in the meantime you’ve got to continue to rely on copper.”
On the one hand this is a “we can only do what we can only do” circumstance. It’s a big job and it will take time. On the other hand, if you’re in a community with a lot of copper, now is a good time to start squeaking your wheel. The digital divide is going to deepen for those stuck in copper ghettos. So much money is going into broadband in the next few years – it’s a good time to get to the front of the line. Not only will your speeds likely not be getting faster but other households will and the assumption/expectation will be that most people have fiber. Suddenly telehealth, remote work and homework will rely on better broadband. We got a taste of that during the pandemic; so you know what it will be like.