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The Fiber Land Grab

It’s becoming clear that we are now deep into a fiber land grab. By that, I mean that companies that overbuild fiber in the United States are moving into markets to build fiber as quickly as possible. The biggest ISPs have publicly discussed their plans for building a lot of fiber in 2023. Following are some of the latest projections for 2023:

  • AT&T plans to build past 2—2.5 million new passings.
  • Frontier plans to pass 1.3 million new homes.
  • Altice is aimed for 900,000 new fiber passings.
  • Brightspeed is planning on 600,000 new passings.
  • Verizon hasn’t announced a number but built 550,000 new passings in 2022.
  • MetroNet is aiming for 500,000 new passings.
  • Lumen plans to build 500,000 passings.
  • Consolidated Communications is planning on 350,000 passings.
  • Charter announced plans for 300,000 passings.
  • Comcast announced plans to pass more than 200,000 homes.
  • TDS plans on 175,000 new passings.

This list doesn’t include the numerous smaller companies that are building fiber. The largest among the rest include fiber builders like Bluespeak, Clearwave, Omni Fiber, Surf Internet, WOW!, and Ziply Fiber. I would guess that there are a few hundred other companies with aggressive fiber plans. This also doesn’t even count the fiber being built by over 200 electric cooperatives.

I call it a land grab because these ISPs are all hoping to get to towns and neighborhoods first in order to dissuade anybody else from building fiber. Since most places getting fiber are already served by a cable company, most of this land grab is not going to create monopolies—but these fiber builders all think they can win a significant share of the market away from the cable competitor.

It doesn’t always work out the way that the fiber overbuilders hope. I talked to somebody in Lansing, Michigan, who was amazed that there were three different fiber providers in their alley offering fiber broadband. As somebody who builds fiber business plans, I have to wonder about the third company that constructed fiber when there were already two other competitive fiber providers on the poles. Will any of the three ISPs get enough customers to be successful? But most markets are not seeing that kind of competition, although some of the announced plans on the list above must be in markets where somebody else has already built fiber.

This level of fiber construction bodes poorly for cable companies. Every one of these fiber providers will tell you that they will get at least a 30% market share, and most are hoping for 50%. They are all banking on the current public sentiment that fiber is the superior technology compared to cable company coaxial networks. These ISPs almost all have lower broadband prices than the big cable companies.

Of course, cable companies are rushing to fight back by upgrading upload speeds to become symmetrical. You can expect when that happens to see a huge blitz everywhere talking about symmetrical gigabit speeds. Cable companies also compete by offering very low introductory rates intended to win or keep customers from leaving for fiber. But much of the public has gotten tired of that cycle of having to renegotiate rates every few years.

Only time will tell if cable companies will be successful with this strategy. If enough of the public believes fiber is superior, then any cable marketing plan is going to fall on deaf ears for some portion of every market.

Rural fiber land grabs are different because anybody building fiber in a rural market probably will have a monopoly for fast landline broadband. It’s hard to think that many companies will consider building a second fiber network in places with low housing density. The rural fiber builders will likely face competition from WISPs deploying the latest radios. Just like with competition with cable companies in cities, it’s going to be interesting to see who wins that battle. It’s likely going to be a neighborhood-by-neighborhood battle. I suspect local WISPs with good local reputations will fare well against fiber built by the giant telcos or cable companies. On the flip side, local cooperatives and other local fiber builders will likely do extremely well against the giant WISPs. It’s going to be an interesting battle to watch.

I have no idea how Starlink and FWA cellular wireless fit into this battle. Fiber and fixed wireless with the newest radios will both be faster than these two technologies, and the market battle might come down to prices. The next decade is going to be an epic battle for broadband customers and a boon to ISP marketers.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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