Copper retirement, cable wholesale, international expansion and small cells took center stage at COMPTEL Spring 2014

Sean Buckley, FierceTelecom

The COMPTEL Plus Spring 2014 showed itself again to be the flagship event for the competitive service provider industry.

According to show organizers, the spring event attracted about 1,700 attendees, 70 percent of which were senior-level executives that were ready to conduct deals with other members of the competitive provider industry.

Alan Morse, who was recently appointed as president of hybrid CLEC/ILEC Ritter Communications, told FierceTelecom that he made a couple of key deals with other service providers.

While COMPTEL has always been a prime deal-making event, FierceTelecom identified four larger issues looming over the industry:

  • Copper retirement and IP transition: Retiring copper in favor of fiber and transitioning networks from TDM to IP was one of the hotly contested issues. While the copper retirement and IP transition may seem like separate issues, they are largely intertwined. AT&T (NYSE: T) has proposed to shut down its TDM network by 2020 and has asked the FCC for permission to conduct two IP transition trials in Alabama and Florida. During a morning panel session last Tuesday, representatives from AT&T, CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL), Frontier (Nasdaq: FTR) and one competitive carrier Granite Telecommunications, discussed copper retirement and the IP transition. AT&T maintains that the retirement of TDM services does not mean copper retirement, but evolving copper for a mix of fiber to the node (FTTN)-based U-verse and Ethernet over Copper for businesses. Meanwhile, Frontier has been enhancing the copper network facilities it purchased from Verizon (NYSE: VZ) in 2010 to support business and residential services. But the concern of Granite Telecommunications, which still adds 1,000 POTS lines a month, is how will the transition affect its multi-site customers, which reside in the secondary markets where AT&T wants to conduct its IP transition experiments?

  • Small cell backhaul realities: The buildout of 4G LTE by the top wireless operators created a wholesale feeding frenzy for incumbent and competitive wireline players. But as the fiber to the tower opportunity starts to level off, the next opportunity will be serving other tenants at a site and small cells. Given the diversity of approaches--including picocells, metrocells and microcells--there are going to be various methods including lit and dark fiber, microwave and even hybrid fiber coax (HFC) to serve small cells.

    Wilcon, a Southern California-based provider, told FierceTelecom said it is seeing interest in small cell backhaul. "We're also seeing a lot of growth in small cells and DAS as wireless operators are focused on increasing their capacity to macrosites, but there's a lot of talk about filling in between macrosites with small cells," said Jon DeLuca, CEO of Wilcon, adding that "we're still very early in the process."

    However, wireless operators don't see small cell backhaul as a one-size-fits-all proposition. Dave Mayo, vice president of engineering, T-Mobile USA, said during the Tuesday morning panel, 2014 Wireless Industry Roadmap & Carrier Predictions, that various approaches are needed. "I am optimistic that the code will get cracked on the backhaul issue, but I think there's got to be alternative ways, and fiber may be one of them," he said. "It's really challenging to have small cells at the same cost point as a macrocell so I think there will be microwave and non-line-of-site solutions that will help to fill that void."

  • Cable sharpens its wholesale skills: If the pending Comcast/Time Warner Cable mega deal goes through, it will change the landscape of the Pay-TV industry. However, the deal will also make Comcast (Nasdaq: CMCSA) an even bigger retail and wholesale player that can leverage TWC's extensive fiber networks and experience. But they will still face stiff competition from Cox Business, which has provided wholesale and business services for over 17 years. Meanwhile, Charter Communications (Nasdaq: CHTR) has found a sizeable business serving wholesale opportunities in Tier 2 and 3 markets. Executives from Charter, Cox and Time Warner gathered to discuss top trends in wholesale, including Ethernet and wireless backhaul during a Monday morning panel titled What's New and What's Next in Cable Wholesale?

  • Emerging international opportunities: Focusing on the domestic market is a priority for competitive providers, but there are some lucrative opportunities in the international market. Integra, for example, announced during COMPTEL that it extended its network reach to Europe through an agreement with international peering leader IX Reach. But entering international markets is only one part of the equation. Competitive providers like tw telecom (Nasdaq: TWTC) and Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) are becoming conduits for international providers that need connectivity into the United States.

Similar to the wireless industry, the developments that emerged during COMPTEL Plus Spring are complex and will take time to be sorted out. It will be interesting to see how these discussions evolve into the next show in the fall.--Sean