Getting into shape to wire millions of US homes and businesses for speeds of up to 1 Gbit/s over the next few years, AT&T has placed itself on a heavy fiber diet.
As it gears up to roll out its GigaPower service to at least another 35 metro areas, bringing the total to 56, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) is installing fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) connections at an unprecedented pace. Working plans call for extending fiber and ultra-fast speeds to 14 million residential and business customers by the end of 2019, exceeding its commitment of 12.5 million customer locations under the conditions imposed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) when it approved AT&T's purchase of DirecTV last year. (See AT&T Expands GigaPower to 38 New Metros.)
"Our team is focused on building fiber-to-the premises," said Veronica Bloodworth, senior vice president of construction and engineering for AT&T, in a recent interview with Light Reading. "We are hockey-sticking our fiber deployment."
As of the end of 2015, AT&T served more than 1.6 million homes and businesses with FTTP lines capable of delivering GigaPower speeds. Under the conditions imposed by the FCC, the company is supposed to offer FTTP-enabled services to 2.6 million customer locations by the close of this year and 12.5 million by the close of the decade.
Bloodworth said AT&T, which formerly focused on building fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) networks to deliver its slower U-verse broadband service over a mix of fiber and copper, "made the pivot" to FTTP construction last year after starting its major deployment of GigaPower. But it still has a long way to go to catch up with its FTTN networks, which now reach about 30 million homes and businesses with last-mile copper connections.
"Today we do very little FTTN," she said, noting that almost all of the company's new builds are now FTTP. "We only do it [FTTN] now on a case-by-case basis."
With its new focus on building FTTP networks across its 21-state region, AT&T is digging up many streets, roads and byways to bury the fiber lines under the ground. "We like to play in the dirt right now," Bloodworth cracked. "It's very much an engineering-intensive endeavor and process."
It's also a regulatory-intensive process at the local level. In fact, perhaps the biggest challenge that AT&T is encountering so far is gaining municipal approvals and utility clearances for its new fiber builds across the US, according to Bloodworth.
"What really slows us down is the ecosystem around it," she said. "They're not necessarily ready for a massive fiber build. That will be the long pole in the tent."
As it makes the shift over to an all-fiber architecture, AT&T is also switching from installing large video-ready access devices (VRADs), or bulky equipment cabinets, to installing smaller, more agile primary flexibility fiber points (PFPs) in residential subdivisions. In turn, these PFP boxes then connect to much smaller, lighter fiber terminals that can hang off utility poles and serve up to four homes apiece. "It's a completely different approach and completely different engineering," Bloodworth said.
In one more operational shift and challenge, AT&T is now digging up homeowners' lawns and driveways much more than before to run the new fiber lines all the way to the customer premises. While customers may crave the much higher speeds that GigaPower offers, they cringe when they see the construction crews approaching with their big picks and shovels. Acknowledging the problem, AT&T is making heavy use of door hangers, social media and even personal home visits to smooth the path for the necessary installation work.
"People still don't like their lawns dug up," Bloodworth noted. "But we're doing everything we can to make it easy on them."
Sponsored by AT&T, this blog is the third part of a ten-part series examining next-generation broadband technologies.
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading