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AT&T Q1 Reflects Fiber Growth, Fixed-Wireless Still Plays Crucial Role for Rural Americans

AT&T executives emphasized role of fixed-wireless as crucial to serving rural Americans.

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AT&T CEO John Stankey at the Fortune Brainstorm TECH at the Aspen Institute Campus, by Kevin Moloney/Fortune Brainstorm TECH

WASHINGTON, April 21, 2022 – During AT&T’s first quarter call on Thursday, CEO John Stankey noted the decline of older technologies as it expands its fiber builds and continues to invest in fixed-wireless.

During the call, AT&T Chief Financial Officer Pascal Desroches stated that even with the shutdown of 3G services, the company still had its best first quarter in more than a decade with 691,000 postpaid phone net adds and 965,000 postpaid net adds on its network. In the first quarter, AT&T fiber also gained 289,000 net adds, having brought the total AT&T fiber users up to 6.3 million (1.1 million more than Q1 of 2021).

While speaking to investors Thursday, Stankey emphasized that the demand for slower technologies like DSL and cable are continuing to fall. “We do not believe a product that is doing sub-100 [Mbps] is going to be a viable product in the market over the net couple of years based on how we are seeing consumers use the service,” Stankey said.

Similar sentiments have been shared by industry experts and broadband experts since over the past several years, though these assertions were echoed even louder during the Covid-19 pandemic, when the difference between those who could benefit from telehealth, telework, and distance learning services became even more pronounced.

Though fixed-wireless deployment strategies may not be able to deliver speeds as high as fiber, Stankey also did not rule them out. “There are clearly places in more rural areas where fixed wireless will be the best way to send bandwidth out to a customer,” he said. “We believe we can play in those spaces – there will be some former ADSL locations where fixed wireless will be a substantial step up and opportunity, and there [are] going to be places where the government comes in with subsidy in less densely populated areas that fixed-wireless is going to be the solution.”

He added that even though there might be other customers that may be best served by other “niche” broadband products, AT&T will not focus on marketing to these highly specific customers. “I think market performance of what we are able to do as we blanket an area with a robust fixed/fiber broadband service are showing in the numbers that we are putting up in our performance in the market right now.”

Consolidated revenues for the quarter were $38.1 billion with operating income of $5.9 billion.

Fiber

New Whitepaper Shows Long Wait Times for Fiber Construction Materials

The Fiber Broadband Association has said there is up-to 60 weeks of wait for materials necessary for fiber deployment.

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Photo of Gary Bolton, president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association, via fiberbroadband.org

WASHINGTON, September 20, 2022 – Covid-19 and other supply chain stressors have contributed to lead times of up to 60 weeks for materials necessary for fiber deployment and operation, according to a recent white paper from the Fiber Broadband Association.

Speaking at a web event Thursday, FBA President and CEO Gary Bolton presented some of the report’s findings. The waiting period for fiber optic cabling is 52–60 weeks, the report says, and lead times for other necessary goods – e.g., 10–20 weeks for cabinets and splitters, 20–35 weeks for multiport terminals, and up to six months for home equipment – are also extended. The report also notes shortages or inflated prices of raw goods such as plastics, resins, steel, aluminum, copper, and wood.

Prices in the fiber broadband industry are also affected by the global semiconductor shortage. For instance, the price of neon – necessary for semiconductor production – has spiked in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which halted production from a major neon manufacturer in Mariupol and another in Odesa.

President Joe Biden last month signed the Chips and Science Act into law, which includes $52 billion to incentivize domestic manufacturing of semiconductor chips.

In addition, logistical bottlenecks still plague the supply chains, the report said: “COVID shutdowns continue in waves around the globe, with Chinese ports particularly hard hit this year. In April 2022, up to 20% of the 9,000 globally active container ships were stuck outside backed-up ports in various parts of the world. Almost a full 30% of that backlog was created by shutdowns in Chinese ports alone.”

Supply chain disruptions have contributed to the inflation currently disrupting the broadband industry. To avoid such disruptions, the FBA report recommends a series of strategies, including increased domestic sourcing of materials, supply chain diversification, and the utilization of AI technology.

“AI can help companies make short term, reactive decisions about how to source components, and it can also help them make longer-term planning decisions about where they will manufacture their goods,” the report says.

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North Carolina Officials Tout Recent Investments in Rural Fiber

North Carolina hopes to achieve 80 percent subscription to broadband services among its citizens.

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Screenshot of Nate Denny, deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Broadband and Digital Equity Division

September 9, 2022 – With $260 million being awarded by North Carolina to several fiber deployments, a key state official highlighted his strategy toward broadband infrastructure, community engagement, mapping and digital literacy initiatives.

Speaking on Wednesday at the Fiber Broadband Association’s Fiber for Breakfast event, Nate Denny, deputy secretary of the North Carolina Department of Information Technology’s Broadband and Digital Equity Division, said that the Tar Heel State allocated more than $1 billion from its American Rescue Plan funding for different facets of broadband deployment.

Dubbed the Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, $260 million of an anticipated $380 million is to be awarded, including $206 on August 31, 2022.

According to Denny, the $260 million already allocated will span 92 counties and connect more than 115,000 new homes and businesses.

Additionally, the private sector has provided $120 million in matching funds to the $260 million in public funds already spent, Denny said.

GREAT is a reimbursement program, Denny explained, and grantees have two years to complete projects under state supervision. Grantees thus far include major national companies – including AT&T and Charter – as well as small regional providers and cooperatives.

Beneficiaries of GREAT funding are expected to participate in the Federal Communications Commission’s Affordable Connectivity Program, which provides discounts on monthly internet bills and eligible device purchases to low-income households.

Denny said that North Carolina hopes to achieve 80 percent subscription to broadband services among its citizens in the next few years. Besides GREAT, the state’s American Rescue Plan–funded broadband programming includes the Stop Gap Solutions program, which provides targeted solutions such as satellite coverage to hard-to-reach locations. It also includes a broadband mapping initiative and a $50 million digital literacy effort.

In addition to current funding programs, Denny expects North Carolina to be the recipient of more than $800 million in upcoming Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program grants. He said that the state plans to funnel BEAD moneys into existing programs that have proven themselves effective.

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Fiber Providers Feeling the Heat of Inflation as Cost of Materials, Labor Rise

One fiber tools company says inflation is hitting broadband developers hard.

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Photo of Sam Pratt, CEO of Render Networks, from his Twitter account

September 8, 2022 – Inflation-driven high prices for materials and labor are putting significant economic pressure on builders of fiber networks, Render Networks CEO Sam Pratt told Broadband Breakfast Tuesday.

Inflation woes have gripped America for almost a year and a half. The latest consumer price index report has year-over-year inflation at 8.5 percent. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s data for August 2022, the median hourly wage jumped 6.7 percent quarter-over-quarter.

The fiber industry is feeling the effects of inflation like all others. Pratt, who runs the software company that assists fiber construction companies, said that fiber developers that already submitted cost estimates in their government funding applications but haven’t yet ordered supplies or contracted for labor will likely run over budget due to inflation.

Consulting firm Dgtl Infra estimates that fiber optic cables cost $60,000–$80,000 per miles buried, up to sixty percent of which pays for labor. Taking the average of Dgtl Infra’s estimate – $70,000 per mile – as current, and if quarter-over-quarter wage growth remains at 6.7 percent – as it has since June 2022 – each new mile of fiber laid will cost an additional $4,814 in labor costs come November.

For a fiber deployment of 7,000 miles – the length of Google Fi’s project in Kansas City – the next three months would bring a labor-cost increase of $33,698,000.

Government officials warned last summer that the inflation problem could make closing the digital divide more challenging. One official from Minnesota said the increased cost of deployments could even be pushed onto consumers, raising their monthly bills.

Streamlining production

Inflationary pressures make efficiency in the construction process incredibly important, Pratt said he believes, adding construction costs make up the vast majority of broadband funding. He said his company offers tools to allow users to digitally map all progress and to streamline workflows. Pratt said that extensive geospatial data allows builders to better identify and eliminate inefficiencies in the construction process.

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