FairPoint says operators must support lit and dark fiber to compete for small cell backhaul

FairPoint Communications, keen to get a piece of the emerging small cell wireless backhaul and services market being fueled by major wireless operators like Sprint (NYSE: S) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ), is doing an about-face on dark fiber.

Sprint said during its fourth quarter earnings call that it would be using a mix of 2.5 GHz spectrum and dark fiber for small backhaul

Similar to Verizon, an early advocate of dark fiber backhaul, Sprint sees dark fiber as a way to control bandwidth allocations. Unlike a lit service where an operator has to request their wireline provider partner to provision bandwidth, dark fiber allows Sprint to make upgrades themselves.

This could spell opportunity for a number of independent ILECs like FairPoint and competitive carriers like Level 3, Integra and an emerging host of dark fiber players like USA Fiber and SummitIG, which have built business models around providing dark fiber.

FairPoint says that service providers must be prepared to offer a mix of lit and dark fiber services.

"Within the next year, wireless carriers will likely select a preference for traditional lit services or dark fiber (or a hybrid of both) to support their small cell backhaul deployments," said Chris Alberding, VP of product management for FairPoint in a blog post. "Service providers must be ready to support either approach."

As an ILEC, FairPoint has traditionally been reluctant to sell dark fiber because it could put a strain on potential retail and wholesale revenue opportunities. At this point, the service provider has not revealed whether it will offer dark fiber services as part of it small cell backhaul business.

But providing traditional fiber services is only one part of FairPoint's overall small cell approach.

Already an active provider of wireless backhaul to towers in its Northern New England territory, FairPoint created a construction division in October 2015. Interestingly, the catalyst for developing a construction division was small cell services.

The company's Construction Solutions for wholesale customers can accommodate a host of wireline and wireless projects, including small cell construction and custom cellular locations, structured cabling and inside wiring, construction project management and custom-built network solutions.

"Wireless carriers may also start considering more turnkey "small cell as a service" options when evaluating small cell providers -- especially if they don't have an extensive profile in the market," Alberding said. "Outsourcing support for site readiness, power, permits and ancillary vendors, as well as ongoing operations and maintenance of small cells, may be the best option for wireless carriers that need to keep their networks running over the long term."

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