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Fiber Connect 2023: Executive Light Talks from AT&T and Consolidated Communications

Fiber Connect 2023 was a showcase for the fiber broadband ecosystem, enabling service providers, equipment manufacturers, construction contractors, policymakers, consultants, and analysts to exchange views on the state of the industry and where it is headed. Among the keynote speakers sharing their thoughts and positions through the event’s “Light Talk” series were telecom executives Chris Sambar, President, AT&T Networks, and Gaurav Juneja, President – Consumer & SMB, Consolidated Communications. 

Consolidated Communications’ Gaurav Juneja explores how fiber disrupts rural communities during a Light Talk. (Source: FBA)

Fiber joins a long line of AT&T telecommunications innovations since the first telephone in 1876. “In 1977, the first commercial fiber was laid in America,” said Sambar. “That was AT&T in Chicago. It’s been going strong now for almost 50 years.” Calling fiber “future proof” and “a great investment we’re making in America,” Sambar suggested fiber could have a useful lifespan of 100 years or more, given some copper installed in the 1880s is still in use today, nearly 150 years later, while some of the initial fiber deployed in the ‘70s is still in production use today. 

Unlike copper, fiber provides superior speed, flexibility, and reliability and is the literal backbone media of all AT&T’s services today, providing hundreds of gigabits in its core network spanning the globe to support everything from consumer connectivity through 5G wireless. AT&T is already looking at ways to increase speeds, having tested 20 Gbps symmetrical speeds in its production network last year. Upgrading will mean simply replacing the electronics on the end points, rather than having to dig, replace, and add more copper capacity as it had in the past. 

“Ten years ago, we started deploying consumer fiber, 1G gigabit service. Back then, people were asking, ‘What does the consumer need a gigabit of speed for? That’s crazy,’” Sambar stated. “Fast forward to last year, we launched 2G and 5G speed tiers. People are buying 2G and 5G speed tiers. They’re obviously doing something in their homes where they need it.”  

Reliability has substantially increased across AT&T’s network with fiber, given that copper wires and water don’t mix well, requiring elaborate air pressure systems to keep copper dry in central office locations. AT&T is also benefiting from the energy savings that fiber delivers as well, helping it meet its carbon reduction goals. “The energy to provide a bit to a customer is 70% lower with fiber than it is with copper,” Sambar stated. “You’ve got a service that’s more reliable, more energy efficient, fewer repairs, fewer truck rolls, and less carbon so better for the environment.”

Like other service providers, AT&T is working to close the digital divide with its own investments along with public and private partnerships. “We’re trying to grow our fiber network as quickly as we possibly can, because we want to serve as many Americans with fiber as we possibly can,” said Sambar. “We want to provide competition in those areas that don’t have great access to high-speed broadband services. Last year, we deployed over 60,000 miles of fiber. We have 25 million locations now covered by our fiber broadband product.”

AT&T doubled the number of locations it had passed with fiber since 2019, investing $140 billion into its network infrastructure between 2018 and 2022, with a significant amount of the construction going into fiber services. The company has also created joint ventures such as Gigapower with investment group BlackRock and public-private partnerships with cities to build fiber networks. Sambar cited AT&T’s success to bring fiber to 20,000 locations in Oldham County, Kentucky, using a combination of its funds and American Rescue Plan funds provided through the local government as an example of how private-public partnerships can work for the benefit of all. 

Consolidated’s Rural Reach

While not as large as AT&T, Consolidated Communications traces its history almost as far back with its founding in 1894. Today, Consolidated delivers consumer and business services in over 20 states with a fiber network of over 58,000 route miles, making it among the top 10 largest providers in the country.

AT&T’s Chris Sambar delivers a Light Talk focused on how fiber will enable a host of new connected features inside the home, at work, and at educational institutions.” (Source: FBA)

“Our mission is to bring broadband services to unserved and underserved communities, ultimately connected to people and enriching how they live and work,” said Juneja. “We have done this through a significant fiber network expansion, known as Fidium Fiber internet, and through public and private partnerships.”

Fiber has had a positive disruptive effect on rural communities, said Juneja, enabling small businesses and single owner proprietorships to compete with their city counterparts. “Fiber broadband is an equalizer, an essential utility that levels the playing field for education, remote work, telehealth, entertainment, and so much more,” said Juneja. “We’re seeing incredible collaboration from network operators, towns, municipalities, residents, business owners, and government agencies to make high-speed fiber internet a reality and enabler in rural America. This can sometimes take months or even years of planning and none of this can be possible without a true team effort.”

Rural communities and their residents are being opened to a world of opportunities through high-speed broadband, as well as creating additional wealth. Juneja said that 1G fiber service can add more than 3% to a home’s value and increase rental values by 8%. Bringing fiber into Chesterfield, New Hampshire, has resulted in a housing boom, with new families arriving and houses selling as quickly as they hit the market. 

“Better connected communities create better employment opportunities,” Juneja stated, noting that 70% of all jobs are now posted online. “Studies show that higher rates of access to and adoption of wired broadband like fiber lead to higher employment in rural communities, higher median incomes, and increased entrepreneurial activity.”

Fiber is also benefiting Consolidated’s small business customers. “A shoe store in beautiful downtown Keene, New Hampshire, saw a 30% increase in ecommerce sales,” Juneja stated. “Now they’re experimenting with new technology that will allow virtual running shoe fittings via his website with his fiber connection. Imagine finding the right shoes for a pronator with an uneven stride from the local shop without having to leave their homes.”

Consolidated wants to bring the success of fiber to more communities, but it won’t be easy, even with BEAD and other factors. “Wiring rural America with fiber is hard work and it’s expensive, but it is the catalyst for new opportunities,” said Juneja. “Network operators such as ourselves make tough decisions every day on CapEx investments, given the geography and scale of rural communities and this requires considerable financial and operating discipline. However, the benefits of fiber broadband to rural America will not be fully utilized until the last mile and the network is fully built.”

To do this, Consolidated Communications is embarking on the largest private expansion plan in the company’s 130-year history, with the goal to upgrade at least 70% of its current service area with fiber direct to the home and business. “We are well down this path and have recently surpassed 1 million fiber passes as we bring Fidium Fiber service to hundreds of thousands of people across rural unserved and underserved communities throughout the U.S.,” said Juneja.