AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink's aggressive build-outs of fiber into commercial buildings have continued to increase the availability of fiber connectivity. Vertical Systems Group said that fiber reach into large and medium-sized business buildings in the U.S. rose to 54.8% in 2017.
As a result, the overall U.S. fiber gap dropped to less than 50% (45.2%) for the first time since VSG initiated research in 2004, the research group says.
"More commercial U.S. buildings were newly lit with fiber during 2017 than in any other year since we initiated this research in 2004," said Rosemary Cochran, principal of Vertical Systems Group, in a release. "The number of net new fiber lit buildings increased across every building size segment, and most substantially for medium size sites."
However, VSG’s report does not address fiber connected to cell towers, small cells not located in fiber lit buildings, near net buildings, buildings classified as coiled at curb or coiled in building, HFC-connected buildings, carrier central offices, residential buildings, and private or dark fiber installations.
Acquisitions, organic build-out shift market
In the on-net building race, it’s clear that the nation’s largest and even regional service providers have been keen on enhancing their on-net footprints via either ongoing network builds or targeted acquisitions.
The big three U.S. providers—AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink—certainly have been solidifying their on-net fiber building positions via these methods.
Just in time for its fourth-quarter 2017 financial report, AT&T told investors that it reached 400,000 business buildings with its own lit fiber facilities. Due to AT&T’s aggressive build-out, the service provider now covers over 1.8 million U.S. business customer locations. The telco said it is “adding thousands more buildings each month.”
CenturyLink and Verizon took the M&A path to enhance their on-net fiber holdings.
In single stroke, CenturyLink’s purchase of Level 3 increased its on-net building reach by nearly 75% to approximately 100,000 buildings, including 10,000 buildings in EMEA and Latin America, giving the telco a larger footprint to deliver Ethernet and software-defined services.
Verizon’s purchase of XO Communications gave the telco additional metro fiber networks in 40 major U.S. markets with over 4,000 on-net buildings and 1.2 million fiber miles.
But it wasn’t just the big three that saw moves during the last year.
Consolidated Communications also enhanced its on-net fiber holdings via its acquisition of FairPoint. By acquiring FairPoint, Consolidated immediately established itself as the ninth largest fiber player with a presence in 24 states and 8,000 on-net buildings.
This greater density will enable Consolidated to pursue more dark fiber and lit Ethernet service opportunities with a larger mix of business and wholesale customers.
What was also notable about this year’s M&A on-net building rush was the presence of nontraditional players like Uniti Fiber, which acquired two regional fiber providers, Southern Light and Hunt Telecom. These two deals give the REIT more fiber to pursue a mix of wireless, E-Rate, military, enterprise and wholesale opportunities, including fiber-to-the-tower backhaul, small cell networks and dark fiber. The acquisition of Southern Light in particular gives Uniti access to an additional 4,500 on-net locations.
Fueling Ethernet, 5G deployments
Having more available on-net fiber is another factor that plays into service providers’ U.S. Ethernet service reach and 5G plans by creating pipes through which wireless operators can build small cell and distributed antenna systems (DAS) to improve wireless coverage in business buildings.
Encompassing more than 2 million individual business establishments, this base of commercial buildings maps directly to the addressable market for higher speed carrier Ethernet, cloud, data center, hybrid VPN and emerging SDN-enabled business services.
Several of the service providers that have high on-net fiber building counts represent some of the largest Ethernet providers in the U.S.
On the Ethernet end, AT&T, CenturyLink and Verizon continue to demand high spots in the Ethernet space. However, the effect of M&A clearly has altered the Ethernet landscape.
CenturyLink knocked AT&T from its nearly 13-year reign as the top domestic Ethernet provider in the U.S. by completing its acquisition of Level 3 Communications. The service provider’s move up the ranks of VSG’s year-end 2017 U.S. Ethernet Leaderboard was also a function of continued growth in Ethernet ports for both companies. Earlier, Level 3 ranked second to AT&T and CenturyLink ranked fifth on the Mid-2017 U.S. Ethernet Leaderboard.
But Ethernet is only one factor driving ongoing on-net fiber builds. Cochran noted in an e-mail to FierceTelecom that “larger providers larger providers are accelerating deployments” to position themselves for 5G.
Verizon, for example, acquired WideOpenWest’s fiber assets in Chicago, securing fiber to more than 500 macro-cell wireless sites and more than 500 small-cell wireless sites in the area.
Meanwhile, Crown Castle advanced its fiber standing by acquiring Lightower—a deal that gave it greater fiber density to address businesses and its traditional wireless business customers deploying small cells in buildings. This acquisition gave Crown Castle rights to approximately 60,000 route miles of fiber, with a presence in all the top 10 and 23 of the top 25 metro markets.
As the expectations for higher speed Ethernet, cloud and in-building wireless coverages continues to ramp, service providers will continue to further narrow the fiber gap inside buildings. But unlike the speculative builds of the 1990s, these are focused on bandwidth hungry applications that are showing no signs of slowing.