AT&T, Verizon, Ziply plot copper retirement work across a dozen states

AT&T has filed to undertake copper retirement projects in at least eight states this year, as it ramps a plan to reduce its legacy DSL footprint by 50% over the coming years. Verizon, which has been working to retire its copper network for a while now, and Ziply Fiber are seeking to sunset copper assets in four additional states.

Under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, operators are required to file public notices for certain network changes, including copper retirements. Short term notice can be submitted for changes set to take place within six months. These notices are published by the FCC and considered final after 90 days if no objection is raised. In the case of filings covering facilities not serving any customers, the notices are considered final after 15 days. The waiting period following the publication of public notices was originally 180 days, but was cut to 90 through reforms passed by the FCC in November 2017.

According to filings AT&T has made thus far in 2022, it is targeting upgrade work in Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas in the first half of this year.

Specifically, AT&T filed to upgrade wire centers in Atlanta, Ga.; Charlotte, N.C.; Brookfield, Chillicothe, Laclede, Linneus, Kirksville, Saint Catharine, Stanberry and Trenton, Mo.; and Alva and Olustee, Ok., with work starting in January and February. The filings for most of these noted there were no current customers on the relevant parts of the network.

Additional projects in Lake Park, Ga.; Baker, Baton Rouge, Boutte, Briarwood, Chauvin and Houma, La.; Senatobia, Miss.; Charleston, S.C.; Kernersville and Winston-Salem, N.C.; and La Porte, Texas were set to begin between March and June. In these areas, AT&T said it planned to replace its copper network with GPON fiber.

During its Investor Day event last week, AT&T Communications CEO Jeff McElfresh said the operator has prioritized turning down copper in areas with little to no consumer demand first and is also looking to decommission parts of its network in areas where it plans to deploy fiber. He added the operator has already dismantled over 9,000 network elements and expects to step up copper decommissioning work 10x this year.

An AT&T representative told Fierce the operator is looking to replace copper in many of the 3.5 million to 4 million locations where it is looking to deploy fiber this year. It is also looking to transition more customers off copper in other areas already covered with fiber.

"We have a significant opportunity ahead of us as we still have customers on our copper-based services that have fiber currently available to them," the representative said. "We’re working to upgrade customers to better services, like fiber, for a similar cost where possible before we discontinue outdated, legacy technologies."

Verizon and Ziply

Elsewhere, Verizon filed to retire copper assets in South Boston, Mass., and SyracuseScarsdale and Pleasantville, N.Y., while Ziply Fiber submitted plans to decommission wire centers in Newberg, Beaverton and Hillsboro, Ore., and Marysville, Wash.

Verizon’s notices were filed in February, with work in Syracuse planned to begin on or after March 1, Scarsdale and Pleasantville on April 1 and South Boston on May 2.

Eric Lia, Verizon VP of Network Engineering, told Fierce the company has followed a fairly simple process since it began working to sunset copper assets in 2016: “We build fiber, migrate the customers and retire the copper network.” He noted, however, that it takes different amounts of time to turn down different parts of the network depending on where each sits within its overall architecture.

“For example, we can deload copper cables close to the customers early in the process, whereas a switch serving an entire geography could take us a few years to get all the customers off before we can retire it,” Lia explained.

According to Lia, Verizon is not planning to turn down copper in non-Fios areas. He added it is planning to deploy “more fiber in the areas where we are retiring copper than in previous years” in 2022. The operator’s pace of decommissioning has steadily risen since retirement work started and “will continue to increase” this year, he concluded.

Speaking during an investor day event earlier this month, Verizon CTO Kyle Malady stated it has already upgraded 4.5 million circuits and 36 central offices from copper to fiber. Thus far, he said its retirement program has yielded around $180 million in operational savings.

Ziply filed its notices in mid-February and said it planned to start work within 30 days of its notices being deemed final.

An operator representative told Fierce it has yet to begin its copper retirement work but currently has no plans to retire assets in areas where its fiber is not available. Ziply, which was formed from the sale of Frontier Communication’s assets in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana, is aiming to cover more than 80% of its footprint with fiber in the next few years.

“Our copper customers have been eager to switch to our fiber services when they become available to tap into faster speeds with greater reliability,” the representative said.