Fiber to Home No Longer is the Key Metric: Gigabit Access Is the Issue, and Pessimism is Completely Unwarranted

Vern Fotheringham, V-Satcast executive chairman, asked an interesting question at the Pacific Telecommunications Council’s 2016 annual conference: “what percentage of U.S. homes now are connected to by fiber?” Eventually answering his own question, he said “five percent.”

As with all such figures, context is required. The Fiber to the Home Council estimated in 2015 that 26 million U.S. homes were passed by fiber-to-home connections and could buy service. If there are 134 million U.S. homes, then perhaps 19 percent of U.S. homes are passed by fiber to the home networks and are able to buy service.

As always, though, the issue is not where we are, but where we are going, and there the FTTH statistics do not tell the story. FTTH is one method of providing very high speed Internet access. But it is not the only way.

Cable TV networks able to provide gigabit service would, for many, be a functional substitute for FTTH access.

Also, the issue is the impact of new fiber providers such as Google Fiber, as well as stepped-up gigabit programs by AT&T. The way some of us would frame the issue is the percentage of homes able to buy gigabit service, not the number using a specific access technology.

That paints a different picture. With the commercialization of Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS 3.1) platforms, cable operators can upgrade Internet access speeds up to 10 gigabits per second by means of a software change to modems and routers.

The DOCSIS 3.1 platform supports speeds up to 10 Gbps, depending on how much bandwidth a cable operator wishes to devote for that purpose.

Comcast, for example, already has announced it will upgrade its entire consumer high speed access base (both customers and passings) to gigabit speeds using DOCSIS 3.1. Comcast originally believed it might do so in 2015 or 2016. It now has said that could happen, nationwide, by 2018.

Make no mistake: that will change the picture dramatically. Comcast has shown it can increase high speed access speeds at Moore's Law rates. Comcast passes 54 million U.S. homes. So once the gigabit upgrade is completed, Comcast alone will represent gigabit coverage of 40 percent of U.S. homes.

Cox's consumer gigabit service will be available in all of its markets by the end of 2016. Cox passes 9.2 million U.S. homes. That adds another seven percent.

So Comcast and Cox alone will pass 47 percent of U.S. homes, with unduplicated gigabit coverage.

Assume Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner is approved by regulators. Time Warner passes 30 million homes. That is 22 percent of homes. So Comcast, Time Warner and Cox eventually will provide gigabit access to an unduplicated 69 percent of U.S. homes.

Telcos are moving as well.

Separately, CenturyLink is deploying gigabit access as well, though those locations will overlap with some of the Comcast and other cable operator homes.

AT&T is expanding its GigaPower service to parts of 38 more cities. It's now in 56 metro markets.

AT&T's GigaPower service now reaches one million addresses, with plans to double that in 2016 and ultimately reach 14 million homes and businesses, Goldman Sachs said in a research report.

MoffettNathanson, for its part, says AT&T has committed to expanding its fiber-optic service to 5 million "customer locations" by the end of 2017, 8.3 million by year-end 2018 and 12.5 million through July 24, 2019, as part of conditions tied to the approval of its DirecTV acquisition. Based on regulatory definitions, MoffettNathanson contends the 14 million "locations" will translate to 9.9 million "cable equivalent" homes and businesses, or 7.3 percent of U.S. households.

Google Fiber is on a path to serve Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as the 4.3 million or so homes it already could potentially reach with its already-announced deployments of gigabit service.

The point is that the present and coming competitive market business model for high speed access will change dramatically over the next several years. Where we are does not matter. Where we are going matters.

Fiber to the home availability is not the metric you want to watch. Watch for gigabit access to become the dominant and normal advertised speed across most locations cable can reach. And keep in mind, cable reaches 98 percent of all U.S. homes.

Soon, cable alone will potentially reach 70 percent of U.S. homes, with Google Fiber and telcos offering a second provider option across some of that cable footprint.

Fiber to the home passings do not tell the real story.
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