Dark fiber takes the spotlight again, but providers remain divided on offering it

Sean Buckley, FierceTelecomDark fiber has become the rage again in the wireline wholesale industry as a growing base of service providers, content providers, and even large enterprises are asking for their own fiber pairs to gain complete control over their bandwidth allocations.

In FierceTelecom's latest feature, I take a look at the upward swing that dark fiber is on and how even major ILECs are utilizing the technology.

On the service provider front, the key target are the wireless operators who see dark fiber as a valuable asset to power current macro base station backhaul, but also for future small cell and C-RAN network deployments. Verizon and Sprint, in particular, have been advocates of dark fiber for these wireless network initiatives.

Regardless of the opportunity, service providers remain divided on whether or not to offer dark fiber.

Traditional ILECs like AT&T (NYSE: T), CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ) have been reticent to sell dark fiber for two main reasons: fear of enabling a competitor with a key asset. However, ILECs do see value in having plenty of dark fiber on hand for their own internal uses.

Verizon, for one, will immediately expand its dark fiber holdings when it completes its acquisition of XO Communications' fiber network. The telco noted in a FCC filing that 20 of XO's fiber areas are "unlit, or 'dark,' with those areas having 79 percent unlit fiber on average, including up to 96 percent unlit in Dallas." Verizon will use these dark fiber facilities to simultaneously deepen its Ethernet reach into more buildings and backhaul small cell wireless traffic.

But the XO purchase is only one part of Verizon's dark fiber acquisition and build out strategy. After freezing much of its FiOS investments in recent years, Verizon announced earlier this month an agreement with Boston to build out FTTH service in key parts of the city. The fiber Verizon lays for FTTH will also be used to deliver business services and for small cells.

Likewise, AT&T sees that the fiber network it is rolling out to deliver FTTH services in ultimately 56 markets will also be used to deliver business services while supporting small cell and distributed antenna system (DAS) backhaul.

Other regional telcos like FairPoint and Lumos decided to jump into the dark fiber game so they could enhance their wireless backhaul offerings.

But the majority of the dark fiber services opportunity is being driven by an emerging group of younger fiber-centric players like Summit IG, Fatbeam, Axiom, Cross River, Cleareon, Wilcon, and USA Fiber.

Offering alternative routes and competitive pricing, the key targets for these service providers are content providers and more recently local school districts and universities that can take advantage of changes in the FCC's E-Rate program.

Dark fiber providers like USA Fiber and SummitIG have been building alternative routes in the desirable Ashburn, Va., and broader metro Washington, D.C., areas to provide dark fiber services to a number of key data centers. Meanwhile, Fatbeam has found success in building out dark fiber to local school districts in the Pacific Northwest as anchor tenants. After winning a school district customer, Fatbeam will pursue opportunities with a host of local businesses, hospitals and state and local government agencies.

Check out our new feature and let us know what you think in the comments section.--Sean