From AT&T to Fatbeam: The top 10 (and more) biggest providers of fiber in the U.S.

By Sean Buckley

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Fiber availability to buildings and into other facilities such as cell towers and data centers has become a key issue as wireline operators look to fill their coffers with more enterprise and wholesale dollars. The equation is simple: Those service providers that have more building sites connected to their own network can deliver a larger set of Ethernet and cloud services and control the customer experience.

While fiber availability to U.S. buildings is not at 100 percent, the situation continues to improve. In 2004, only 10.9 percent of buildings in the United States were connected to fiber. In 2014, that number jumped to 42 percent, according to Vertical Systems Group's latest figures.

One of the key drivers of fiber rollouts is demand for Ethernet services. Interestingly, respondents to VSG's survey said that expanding their fiber footprint was their No. 1 concern in delivering Ethernet.

So which companies are the largest providers of fiber in the United States?

Here are the United States' Top 10 Fiber Providers, ranked by route miles of fiber:

But wait! That's not all. We're also providing a more detailed look at fiber penetration among three different U.S. market segments: incumbent telcos, cable operators and competitive providers. We're also providing the number of these operators' on-net buildings, where that number is available.

Please take a look at our new report and let us know what you think in the comments below.

Incumbent Telcos

    Metro Route Miles  On-Net Buildings  Main Markets
1
AT&T
940,000 20,000  
2
Verizon
800,000  10,000  
3
CenturyLink
250,000   Midwest, Northwest, 
4
Frontier
78,838 6,300 Midwest, Northwest, 
5
FairPoint
16,000 3,600 Northern New England
6
Hawaiian Telcom
15,000   Hawaii 
7
Consolidated Communications
13,038 4,804 CA, TX, KS, Iowa, PA, Ilinois
8
Lumos Networks
7,955 1,530 WV,PA,OH,VA
9
Cincinnati Bell
6,600 5,800 Ohio, Northern Kentucky

Led by the top trio of AT&T (NYSE: T), Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL), Tier 1 telcos have continued to update their metro and on-net building fiber footprints. Through its fiber-to-the-building (FTTB) program within its broader Project VIP initiative, AT&T now passes 800,000 businesses with fiber, with a goal of getting to 1 million locations this year. Verizon and CenturyLink are being no less aggressive. Verizon set the stage earlier this year for further metro growth by naming Ciena and Cisco as its metro optical vendors of choice. However, Verizon is facing new challenges from a more powerful Level 3, which surpassed it on Vertical Systems Group's Ethernet Leaderboard. CenturyLink, meanwhile, has been continually expanding both its traditional Ethernet and GPON-based fiber footprint into more buildings to support SMBs with more cloud-based services. The service provider plans to expand its GPON-based FTTB footprint by over 100,000 businesses by the end of the year.

Windstream, Frontier and Lumos are also being aggressive. Windstream said during its first quarter earnings call that it would increase its on-net fiber footprint this year initially in five markets to reduce off-net charges with other providers. Likewise, Frontier reported that in the first quarter data services such as Ethernet grew 20 percent year-over-year as it builds out its fiber footprint to reach more businesses. Through its "edge out" fiber buildout strategy, Lumos is expanding its reach to more wireless towers (adding 49 sites to the network to end the period with a total of 907), and business locations in Pittsburgh.

Finally, Hawaiian Telcom's numbers in the chart above include both long-haul and metro total miles. Consolidated Communications' numbers include both copper and fiber.

Cable operators

    Metro Route Miles  On-Net Buildings  Main Markets
1
Time Warner Cable 
150,000 75,000 nationwide
2
Comcast Business
141,000   nationwide
3
Charter
65,000 13,800  
4
Cox 
30,000 28,000  
5
Cablevision (Lightpath)
5,800 7,000 New York City metro

While the Time Warner Cable/Comcast and Charter/Bright House tie ups may have failed, cable operators continue to be aggressive in expanding their fiber network footprints. As two of the earliest wholesale and business service players, Cox and Time Warner Cable lead the cable market in terms of fiber penetration into buildings with 75,000 and 28,000 buildings already installed. While it would not provide how many buildings it has on net, Comcast has been building out its fiber network into more parts of Northern New England, California and Florida. It reported that first-quarter business services rose to $917 million. Likewise, Charter and Time Warner Cable reported $269 and $781 and million in business revenues, respectively. Not to be outdone, Cablevision's Lightpath has been making progress with its New York City metro and New Jersey footprint, scaling its on-net fiber footprint to over 7,000 locations over the past year.

Competitive providers

    Metro Route Miles  On-Net buildings  Main Markets
1
Level 3 
55,000 30,000 nationwide, Europe, Asia 
2
Birch 
31,000 580 50 U.S. states, Washington D.C., Canada and Puerto Rico
3
Zayo
28,798 16,712 Nationwide Tier 1,2,3
4
EarthLink 
28,000 426 Southeast, Northeast, Midwest
5
Cogent
27,400 2,090 nationwide, Europe, Asia 
6
Lightower
20,000 8,500 NY/NJ/New England/IL/DC
7
XO
13,000 4,000 Nationwide, Tier 1, 2
8
Fibertech (Lightower)
12,200 10,389 Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, Midwest
9
Sunesys (Crown Castle)
8,656 7,202  
10
Fiberlight
8,059 2,018 DC, MD, VA, FL, TX, GA
11
Spirit/PalmettoNet
5,000 100 North, South Carolina
12
Unite Private Networks
5,000 2,500 Midwest
13
Southern Light Fiber

5,000

3,437

Gulf Coast
14
Alpheus
3,250 337 Texas
15
Integra 
3,000 3,000 Northern Plains, Pacific NW
16
Wilcon
3,000 1,014 Southern California
17
FirstLight Fiber
1,600 1,500 Northeast
18
US Signal
1,100 704 Midwest
19
Southern Telecom
277 92 Ga., Fla., Ala.
20
FatBeam
301 326 Pacific NW, Rockies
21
ION
  4,500                  Upstate NY

In the competitive providers segment, the pool of players and on-net fiber connectivity is more diverse. At the top of the heap is Level 3, whose acquisition of tw telecom gave it a larger group of on-net buildings in the U.S. It provided immediate opportunity to upsell both existing Level 3 and tw telecom customers more options and a broader reach of locations. tw telecom's existing customers gained access to Level 3's "local-to-global" footprint. By purchasing tw telecom, Level 3 added nearly 21,000 buildings to its on-net fiber count.

Other notable shifts in this segment include two recent acquisitions: Lightower and Fibertech and Crown Castle's bid for Sunesys. When it completes its acquisition of Fibertech, Lightower will gain an additional 13,000 on-net service locations, including a mix of commercial buildings, data centers and content hubs. Crown Castle, which sees growing opportunities in small cell backhaul, will gain 10,000 miles of fiber in major metro markets across the United States and 7,202 on-net building locations.

Outside of these players, the mix of competitive gets even more diverse. Larger CLECs like XO have built a sizeable business in vertical segments like retail. Players like Fatbeam have been funding a growing niche in the underserved education market. And Alpheus sees dollar signs in Texas' booming oil and gas industry.

This article was updated on May 29 with correct estimated on-net buildings for AT&T and Verizon.

From AT&T to Fatbeam: The top 10 (and more) biggest providers of fiber in the U.S.
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