by Trevor Jones, VP of Marketing, Sales and Customer Service
This week, I’m in Alabama announcing a new plan to invest $5 million to speed broadband deployment to our customers in that market. To a casual observer, some things will look different. Some might think we’ve lost our focus on deploying fiber. Others might think we’ve lost our minds.
In actuality, the changes are less dramatic than they might seem. More importantly, they are all about getting faster service to more customers, sooner, or as I like to say: Faster. Faster!
With that in mind, I’d like to share some of the details and rationale behind the adjustments we’ve made to our deployment plans.
When it comes to broadband deployment, we’re still a fiber first company
For the last several years, we’ve been laser focused on building fiber – so much so, in fact, that I could say “to a fault.” Investments that should have been made to upgrade our Cable and DSL networks were deferred in order to focus on building fiber in areas that desperately needed connectivity. The unintended consequence was that while we were building hundreds of miles of Fiber to the Home every year, the majority of our customers experienced increasing frustration over Internet performance that didn’t come close to meeting their needs.
It’s also true that the fiber that was being built was placed in the most sparsely populated areas, which means that each mile of fiber was helping fewer people than it could have if we prioritized our investments differently.
The new plan diverts a small percentage of the total broadband deployment budget to other technologies so we can help both our (still rural) town centers and the outskirts of town. By doing so, we’re able to build fiber where it can do the most good for the most customers and ensure that no one is left behind. Make no mistake though, the core of our plan is still about fiber build out – more than 80 cents of every dollar in that $5 million commitment to Alabama will still be in Fiber to the Home.
Getting a Gig out of Cable
When we started looking for ways to accelerate broadband deployment of higher speed services, the first place we looked was the cable TV system in Oneonta, Altoona, and surrounding areas. Cable TV systems have the capacity to provide considerably more bandwidth than DSL, and can even provide gigabit-level download speeds if we move to an all-digital television network and upgrade the system to the new Gig capable DOCSIS 3.1. Our team is committed to completing that work and rolling out affordable gigabit-level services on our system in Blount and Etowah Counties.
We know that our customers in Blount and Etowah Counties will be disappointed that the majority of fiber being built this year is in Marshall, Morgan, and Cullman Counties, and we regret that we can’t build everywhere at the same time. Ultimately, though, knowing we could get so much more out of the cable system, we knew the priority for Fiber to the Home deployment has to be in DSL systems where we have less growth potential for bandwidth on the existing network. On the other hand, we’re sure our cable customers will see dramatic improvements by this time next year.
We Can Do Better with DSL
For better or worse, we have our roots in the telephone business, and as a result the majority of today’s network is twisted-pair copper. While we continue building out fiber in all of our service areas, we need to do what we can to improve speeds for those customers who remain on DSL.
From our experience in Missouri, we know that it’s possible to deliver stable high-speed service with downloads of up to 100 megabits per second using Very High Bit Rate DSL (VDSL). Getting that level of performance will require locating DSL equipment closer to customers, upgrading the electronics we use to VDSL everywhere, and connecting these electronics with fiber. Internally, we refer to this strategy as a fiber-to-the-node strategy.
The fiber-to-the-node strategy will provide customers who are still on DSL with speeds that are 2-8 times what they can get today very quickly – not just in Alabama, but everywhere we serve. We expect to have VDSL deployed and have a minimum of 25 megabits down by 3 megabits up available to approximately 50% of our customers nationwide by this time next year, and many of those customers will be able to get up to 50 to 100 megabits per second. At the same time, it pushes our fiber backbone further out into our network and sets us up for more fiber to the home in those areas down the road.
We Haven’t Forgotten Our Other Service Areas
The focus of the current news is on Alabama, but we remain committed to broadband deployment in the other areas we call home. As I alluded to in the previous section, our commitment to upgrade every node on the DSL network to VDSL is nationwide although some areas, especially in New England, require more preparation and may take longer. At the same time, we have fiber projects underway or in the works in Maine and Vermont in 2019 and there will be future fiber projects in each of our service areas.
The bottom line is that if your area isn’t getting fiber this year, it is coming, and we have substantial improvements coming soon.