Southern Light to build 1,650 mile dark fiber network

Southern Light is building a new fiber network extension in its Southeast market to accommodate a fiber-to-the-tower (FTTT) macro tower contract with a large unnamed wireless operator.

Under the 20-year contract, Southern Light will install over 1,650 route miles and 14,000 fiber miles to connect 446 tower sites in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. While it already has a sizeable fiber network in these states, the service provider said it will be building approximately 790 fiber miles over the next four years in order to fulfill the recent contract. 

Today, Southern Light serves 1,520 cell towers and has over 3,800 on-net locations in five states.

Similar to other recent wholesale FTTT deals that were awarded to Zayo in Atlanta and TowerCloud, Southern Light is providing the wireless operator a dark fiber solution.

Paul Bullington, CFO of Southern Light, told FierceInstaller that it continues to see growing interest from wireless operators for dark fiber services.

"Cellular providers are trying to look out in their future, and more of them are looking at dark fiber as a way to ensure that their bandwidth needs are taken care of and their networks are able to handle smartphones and the Internet of Things," Bullington said. "We have had a long relationship with several of the wireless providers and we see this as the next step as their networks evolve. We are excited to be a participant and continue our relationship with them in a dark fiber scenario." 

Bullington added that while this is its first major dark fiber contract with a wireless operator, he expects that although some providers are more aggressive than others, the demand for this service will continue to grow. In addition to macro towers, it is seeing growing demand for small cell backhaul from its wireless operator customers.

"We do see more demand for dark fiber and see this as the tip of the iceberg," Bullington said. "This being our first major deal for a cellular dark fiber network, we really think it's just the beginning."

Since the build runs through various states, Southern Light may have to abide by a particular municipality's view to either use existing aerial utility poles, but the majority of this fiber build will run through underground conduit.

"It's going to be underground construction primarily," Bullington said. "There are a few exceptions where you get into areas where a municipality will only allow aerial construction through a certain area or you get onto a military base with restrictions, but this will predominantly be an underground fiber deployment."

While the fiber network is going to be built with its own facilities, Southern Light will use existing duct and other related infrastructure where it's available in the areas where this new build will touch. This will include leveraging and extending its own existing network in these states that it had previously built out.

"We want to leverage existing ducts or existing fiber optic infrastructure wherever we can," Bullington said. "We have existing network in some of the areas where we'll be deploying this so we'll use that network and existing ducts."

However, one thing that Southern Light won't be doing is leveraging another service provider's fiber assets.

"Existing fiber assets become more problematic because with a dark fiber network you really need to have a high count of fiber, and we believe you need control over that network for a long period of time," Bullington said. "We won't be leveraging other people's fiber for this network, but we will be either leveraging our own fiber, building new fiber or in some isolated cased using existing duct."

But wireless backhaul is only one part of the new network extension.

Now that it has a wireless carrier customer serving as an anchor tenant on the network, Southern Light is taking what could be called a "smart build" approach. This means it will leverage and extend the fiber to serve a host of other potential customer verticals including military installations, hospitals, universities, businesses, non-profits, and financial institutions.

"Just like other carriers and fiber optic providers, we utilize different anchor tenants and have used other anchor tenants throughout our history," Bullington said. "The federal government has been a good anchor tenant for us in some areas, school systems have been good anchor tenants in some areas and wireless carriers with their tower backhaul needs have been great anchor tenants. But the plan has always been to find that anchor tenant and deploy fiber in an area and begin layering over other products, services and customer segments that have a need for our service." 

For more:
- see the release

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