Verizon's Malady: Despite Covid, fiber build is slightly ahead of schedule

Verizon has bold ambitions to have its 5G Ultra Wideband enabled in 60 cities by the end of this year, but to do that it needs more fiber in those urban areas.

During Tuesday's Wells Fargo TMT Summit 2020, Verizon CTO Kyle Malady said the telco was aggressively adding fiber in those urban areas through its One Fiber program. Through One Fiber, Verizon is adding 5G nodes on its fiber across the 60 cities where its deploying the 5G Ultra Wideband service.

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Verizon's One Fiber project, which has been ongoing for several years, combined all of the telco's fiber needs and planning into one project. It also allows Verizon to plot out its fiber uses cases and purchasing plans across all of its sectors. In addition to densification of the wireless network and enabling wireline access, having fiber deep is key for supporting radio access networks (RAN) as well as provisioning an increasing number of small cells.

"I think in a conference like this a couple years ago, I basically said, 'You know, our 5G Ultra Wideband networks are really going to be a fiber network with antennas hanging off of it,' and that still holds true," Malady said. "And so we continue to deploy fiber, and we're deploying thousands of small cells, even in the COVID environment."

Adding fiber is one way that Verizon is growing its 5G Ultra Wideband service footprint. Malady said the other way was by improving the reach of the millimeter technology to propagate and decode the signal to up to five kilometers.

Malady was asked if Verizon was installing north 1,500 routes miles of fiber per month, but he said the pace has slowed down a bit this year.

"We're basically right on plan with our fiber build, even with the Covid," he said. "We run into some headwinds in certain municipalities trying to get permits and whatnot. But I was just looking last night, and we're basically 20 miles better than our goal so far this year  in terms of laying fiber, and we're still putting thousands of miles on per month.

"It's a little bit less than what we were doing last year. Last year, we were putting in a lot of what we call the core runs. So up the big streets. Now a lot of the build is more towards going up what we call these laterals. So it's smaller streets where we're putting the small cells. We're meeting the small cells with the fiber build and doing really well there. The vast majority of our 5G sites are on the One Fiber asset right now."

In addition to the majority of 5G enabled on Verizon's own fiber, Malady said Verizon was starting to put its 4G and some enterprise circuits on it as well, which moves Verizon off of leasing and renting fiber in some areas.

"Over time, we'll hit a sweet spot and a mix of what's on our own (fiber) versus what we lease," he said. "We'll always be leasing some because we make the determination on One Fiber for each market we're in. We're in good shape with all of the 60 plus (cities) we have going on right now. We're probably two or three years away from completing those.

"But we'll be opportunistic as we move forward as we think about deploying more Ultra Wideband. We'll think about what each market looks like. We'll do our calculations and our calculus and decide is this another market where we might want to do some of owners' economics, and we'll make those choices as we move forward."

As an engineer, Malady said his first choice was to always design, build and operate Verizon's own network, but he has to make sure Verizon is getting a return on its fiber investments.

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Three years ago, Verizon completed its $225 million acquisition of WideOpenWest’s (WOW) fiber network assets in Chicago, which secured fiber to more than 500 macro-cell wireless sites and more than 500 small-cell wireless sites in the Windy City area. Malady said Verizon was always on the hunt for more fiber assets but some of its deals have flown under the radar when compared to the WOW deal.

"We've done a lot of other little tuck-in things here and there where I've bought assets. It might not even be fiber, it might just be the conduit," he said. "So if I can get conduit, if I can buy conduit, that actually helps me with my return on the investment and maybe we go do a tuck-in like that. That helps expedite getting the fiber in the ground and then ultimately more dense millimeter wave cell sites out there.

"So what I would say is we're going to continue to look at it. We're excited by it, but it'll come case-by-case as we go forward."