AT&T’s Keathley: Fiber builds are based on proving out economics

Tom Keathley (Source: AT&T)

As AT&T rolls out more small cells and transitions to 5G, an executive said dark fiber's value will increase because it gives the carrier's wireless business greater scale and allows it to gain control over its network circuits.

Tom Keathley, SVP of wireless network architecture and design, told investors at the Cowen & Company 2nd Annual Communications Infrastructure Summit that, like fellow provider Verizon, AT&T is implementing more dark fiber into its wireless network.

“We don’t disclose dark versus lit, but as you move through front haul technologies and small cell you’re likely to see the ratio of dark fiber to go up over leased fiber,” Keathley said.  

Although Keathley won’t say how many sites where it has implemented dark fiber, he expects the use to continue to rise between 2016 and 2021.

“I think the ratio of dark fiber will go up over five years,” said Keathley. “

Having already built out fiber to over 2 million locations, the service provider is able to serve a mix of use cases, including not only wireless backhaul, but also business and residential services. The service provider just launched its 1 Gbps service for homes, apartments and businesses in parts of St. Louis, St. Charles and University City this week, for example.

For example, when it builds out fiber to business customer or residential locations to support its 1 Gbps GPON service, AT&T will also evaluate whether it should deploy a DAS (distributed antenna system) in buildings to enhance wireless coverage.

Whether it builds out its own fiber or leases it from another party like Zayo Group or a regional carrier depends on the particular needs of the tower site or small cell site.

“We own fiber in over 2.2 million locations today so we have a tremendous fiber footprint already,” Keathley said. “Owners' economics of fiber make sense, but it does not necessarily make sense everywhere.”

Keathley said any decision about how AT&T deploys fiber in a particular market is based on how much it will cost to build versus buy from another wholesale carrier.

“It’s purely an economic decision,” Keathley said. “If we can get there faster with good economics maybe in in an area we’re not dense in, a lease might make perfect sense.”

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