Among the 100 communities served by Adtran's Enabling Communities, Connecting Lives initiative, Nolensville, Chapel Hill, and College Grove, Tennessee stand out in a couple of ways. First, their 70-year-old rural telco was acquired three years ago and renamed United Communications. The new ownership, a partnership between current president and CEO, William Bradford, and MSouth Equity Partners, did the deal with the express intent of pushing fiber deep into the network, including to the home where possible. (See Adtran Adds United, Tallies 100+ Gig Deployments.)
Secondly, the three communities are positioned in an area of Tennessee that is riding the growth wave created by Nashville, but also geographically close to Huntsville, Ala., home of Adtran Inc. (Nasdaq: ADTN) and its R&D labs.
The growth created greenfield opportunities for FTTH deployment, and the geographic positioning made it easier for United Communications to tap Adtran's experience in rolling out fiber access networks in a way that makes business sense, with the goal of getting to gigabit services across the service footprint as soon as possible. United became an Adtran customer for FTTH three years ago and has gone all-in with Adtran since, using the company's Total Access 5000 product to support both FTTH and VDSL over copper in areas where fiber is not yet available, to boost speeds as high as possible. The goal is to be 100% Adtran by July of 2016.
"Honestly we just want to be ahead of the curve on speeds, and without investing in fiber, we felt the speeds we could offer over DSL were limited," says Bradford. "We are investing in both, upgrading copper to support VDSL for 100 Meg service on shorter loop links on copper and overbuilding fiber. With Adtran, we can do both out of the same access platform and same chassis."
As a result, United is announcing gigabit services and planning to reach about one quarter of its homes by the end of this year with fiber, the rest on upgraded copper. The company will then continue the fiber upgrade plan, replacing old copper, and continue to do all new builds on fiber.
Throughout its service territory, which includes suburbs of booming Nashville and rural areas farther south, closer to the Alabama-Tennessee border, United faces competition from Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), which can deliver more video content, Bradford acknowledges. That makes being able to offer a better Internet product with higher access speeds a competitive must.
"Adtran has helped us shift our challenge to how can we deliver a gig to the side of the house," says Bradford, whose previous experience is mostly in M&A and finance, including a stint at Fairpoint Communications. "They've got that expertise on how to deploy services, and they have been available every step of the way to answer our questions."
For example, United's focus right now includes helping customers maximize the WiFi coverage within their homes to provide the best coverage and take the greatest advantage of the gigabit speeds possible, he says. "They are helping us with how to provide the greatest range, and range extenders, for the in-home WiFi," he says. "We love that their labs are two hours down the road, and they are putting vendors through their paces on the in-home networking."
Going all-in with one vendor reduces the ability to negotiate price, but Bradford says that's a trade-off United was willing to accept for the ability to train its teams once on equipment and deployment issues, and the knowledge that upgrading from copper to fiber means swapping out a line-card in the existing chassis, and not deploying a whole new box.
"We're their 100th community, not their first, so we are able to build on that expertise," he says. United waited a bit longer to do a public launch, preferring a soft launch that let them get the kinks out. Now the company faces the very real challenge of hiring installation crews to keep up with demand.
Its service portfolio is varied, with Internet access offered at a wide range of speeds, and service bundles up to a triple-play with IPTV also available. One sweet spot offer is a double-play of phone and one-gig Internet at $135 a month.
United's footprint includes rural communities as well as Nashville suburbs, and Bradford says the company is committed to getting FTTH into those areas as well. The company is also working to automate on the backend, having upgraded its operations systems within the last few years as well.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading