What 2021 Promises For the Broadband Industry

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As 2021 unfolds, Broadband Communities are asking industry colleagues what will drive the broadband industry in 2021. If anything is clear about the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted that broadband has gone from a luxury to a necessity for working remotely and remote schooling.

Key to that is a fiber-based symmetrical connection. Whether service is from an incumbent telco, a cable company, a municipality or an electric cooperative, fiber has a ripple effect: It gives consumers higher speeds and can serve as an economic development tool to attract and retain businesses.

RVA LLC noted that as of 2020, more than 54 million U.S. homes have been passed with fiber, growing 10 percent over the previous year. FTTH passes 50.6 million unique homes in the United States. Mike Render, president of RVA LLC, noted that growth declined slightly in 2020 because AT&T met the 14-million mark as part of its DIRECTV acquisition.

“In 2020, deployments were down a bit because larger providers, particularly AT&T, hit their targets for meeting their FCC commitment and paused,” he said.

Nevertheless, New Street Research forecasts that fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) deployments by the top eight largest providers will ramp up in 2021 and beyond.

“We now think that [homes passed] could increase by 20 million to 60 million over the next decade if the telecom companies successfully execute on their plans,” said Jonathan Chaplin, equity analyst for New Street Research, in a research note. “This would take FTTH availability from 25 percent to 35 percent of households – we assume growth in occupied households of about 1 percent.” Render predicts that the potential number of homes that could be passed by FTTH will be even larger when taking into account that a host of emerging players are building out service to more homes. “There are more than 1,000 other providers in the United States alone – some small, some medium, some large – that add
up to more than 10 million,” Render said. “Tier-3 telcos, private competitive providers both large and small, municipal providers, rural electric telcos, and cable MSOs are building out some FTTH.”

When AT&T announced it would no longer accept new DSL customers, it gave cable another opportunity to take market share in markets where AT&T does not offer FTTH. The telco justified its decision because it offers consumers higher-speed FTTH and fixed wireless.

“We are focused on enhancing our network with more advanced, higher-speed technologies [such as] fiber and wireless, which consumers are demanding,” AT&T said in a statement. “We’re beginning to phase out outdated services [such as] DSL, and new orders for the service will no longer be supported after October 1.”

AT&T added that “current DSL customers will be able to continue their existing service, or where possible, upgrade to our 100 percent fiber network.”

Doug Dawson, president of CCG Consulting, said in a blog post that AT&T’s move is a blow to consumers in places where only cable is present. Customers might see higher prices, poor network performance and repair delays.

“Unless some other ISP is building fiber, you no longer have a choice of broadband provider – it’s the cable company or nobody,” he said. “When AT&T announced that it is no longer connecting DSL customers as of October 1, it ceded its historic telephone properties to its cable company competitors.”

Dawson suspects AT&T won’t be the only provider to retire DSL. “AT&T is the first big telco to announce the end of DSL support, but it won’t be the last,” he said. “I find it hard to think that Verizon won’t soon follow now that AT&T has taken a public stance. CenturyLink management has made it clear that it would love to get out of the copper business.”

Though Verizon hasn’t signaled plans to shut off DSL, it has replaced copper with fiber in some areas. For instance, in an FCC filing, Verizon said it will “retire the copper facilities at specified addresses in the fourteen (14) Washington, D.C. wire centers.”

Meanwhile, Lumen separated the traditional copper network business into the CenturyLink brand. Industry watchers say this could better position the company to sell the struggling copper assets.

Lumen hired financial advisers to help it decide on any asset sale. “We’ve been open to looking at assets like our consumer business,” said Lumen CEO Jeff Storey during the company’s first-quarter 2019 earnings call. “We have now engaged advisers to assist us in that review.”

While FTTH is being deployed in greenfield developments, cable operators are leveraging DOCSIS 3.1 and emerging DOCSIS 4. DOCSIS 3.1 increases prior HFC network capacity by more than 50 percent. Likewise, DOCSIS 4.0 technology supports up to 10 Gbps downstream capacity and up to 6 Gbps upstream capacity, allowing for multi-gigabit services over existing HFC networks.

Charter, for one, sees the potential to enhance network speeds.

“We’re continuously increasing the capacity in our core and hubs, and augmenting the network to improve speeds and performance,” said Tom Rutledge, CEO of Charter, during its third-quarter earnings call. “In the near term, we have a large opportunity to improve throughput and latency by continuing to use already-deployed DOCSIS 3.1 technology. By allocating more plant spectrum to DOCSIS 3.1 IP services, we have the ability to offer symmetrical gigabit-plus speeds.”

Rutledge added that DOCSIS 4.0 will give it enough room for 10G speeds. “The DOCSIS 4.0 specification allows for multiple paths through 10-gig and higher speeds, including Full Duplex DOCSIS and Extended Spectrum DOCSIS,” he said.

Similarly, Mediacom, in partnership with CableLabs and NCTA, conducted its 10G smart-home field trials in Ames, Iowa.

“Similar to our rapid deployment of 1-gig across our national network in 2017, the beauty of 10G is that it’s extremely scalable within our existing network infrastructure,” said JR Walden, Mediacom CTO, in a release.

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