AT&T CEO John Stankey was interviewed by Brett Feldman, Goldman’s U.S. telecom and cable analyst. AT&T is both a telecom and media company. We focus on the former for the IEEE Techblog. Here are selected telecom related comments Stankey made (BOLD font emphasis added):
We’re pulling (market) share back from our two largest competitors (Verizon and T-Mobile). I feel good about how we’re doing that. There’s more to be done as we invest in fiber, and we can compliment our wireless business with fiber. There’s opportunities for us to take communications further than what we’ve traditionally done at AT&T. And I think that business should be recognized for being a leading global communications business, like it is, very uniquely positioned with more fiber than any other communications company on the face of the planet, with a great wireless asset domestically in the U.S. and in Mexico, an opportunity to bring those things together, and run it incredibly effectively as a focused business. I think we’ve got a great story there.
I think AT&T is in a great position moving forward. I think the industry frankly is in a great position. I think there’s tremendous promise right now in what ubiquitous high capacity bandwidth with the kind of capabilities that 5G brings in terms of the density that it can afford, the number of devices, the ability to use technology to do things like network slice (requires 5G SA core network which Microsoft is building for AT&T) and begin to differentiate the network. I think this is going to be great for society. I think this is going to be great for the U.S. economy as a whole. If I had to bet, we don’t have the numbers for 2021, certainly can’t project 2022, but I have a sense of where this industry is going. (This author totally disagrees, largely because real, standards based 5G has yet to be deployed as there is only a standard for the RAN which doesn’t meet URLLC performance requirements. No standard for 5G SA core network.).
We’re probably going to see record infrastructure investment coming out of this industry in this period of time. And I think it’s going to equip the United States and our economy and our infrastructure in a way that we’ve never seen. I think that’s going to be incredibly powerful. And I think it’s not only going to be good for AT&T, because I think we have the right kind of wherewithal and the right kind of capability to be right alongside others that are investing at a high clip to bring that infrastructure forward. I think we’ll do just fine with where we are there. I believe when unleashed we have some of the best network minds in the country. I believe that dense fiber footprint that we have that’s denser than anybody else in the United States when engineered properly on top of a great spectrum assets and a great wireless business, it’s going to make our combined product offer and our business even better and more capable to deal with what customers need to do. So, I feel really comfortable about that. And I can do nothing more than not ask you to look at my prognostications, but look at how we’re performing in the market today.
We’ve now started doing some things quietly behind the scenes. We have another muscle to build here, which is how do we begin to work on software to differentiate our products and services in a way that makes our product better than what our competitors can do, because we do have a different asset base, and we are able to serve every corner of the market from the largest of enterprises to the smallest apartment somewhere in the United States. And I don’t think we’ve done as much as we can do in that vein, to actually make that real for our customers and the right products and the right services and the right offers. And so, rebuilding that product engine that we can do that and begin to differentiate allows us to do things that won’t necessarily just hinge on, can I get an attractive handset?
Brett Feldman: I believe your fiber network passes something around 15 million customer locations right now, you’re targeting to ultimately get to 30 million by 2025, that would still only be about half roughly half of the customer locations in the AT&T wireline footprint. Question we’ve gotten is how did you decide what the right target was? Why is it 30? And what really dictates the pace at which you build out fiber?
Stankey replied: Getting this kind of an engine (fiber optic build-out) ramped up to go from building 3 million to 4 million to 5 million homes (locations) past, working through the supply chain, all the logistics that are necessary to build network, it’s not a real simple undertaking. And as I’ve said, my goal is I feel very comfortable, we have places we can go to build 30 million homes (he really means residential and business locations combined) right now on an owned and operated basis, that have very attractive returns in the mid to upper teens. We’re demonstrating every day with our existing base, that we can operate that more effectively, we’ve now crossed over places where we have scale where we’re taking cost out of the business based on fiber replacement, the old infrastructure, we’re seeing that flow through in lower call rates, lower repair rates, better churn, all those things are going to continue to give us goodness moving forward.
Do I think there’s a magic number of 30? No, I don’t. I think there’s a combination of things. One is unlike the investment base, to recognize the good work we’ve been doing. And then in fact, we are building and adding value back to our shareholders. And when they start to recognize that in the form of the equity in the stock, do I believe my credibility and the team’s credibility goes up? Yes, do I believe there’s going to be other opportunities for us to come out, as we hit those scaling metrics that we have in place, the supply chain metrics that we might be able to go in and say, there’s more that we could possibly attack, I’d love to be in that position to do that. And I’ve kind of put that out as a challenge to the management team to say the only thing that stands in the way between you doing 30 million and doing more is your execution and performance.
Brett Feldman: Speaking of execution, execution really has two pieces. It’s deploying the network, and then it’s driving penetration of that network. I believe you had about 5.4 million fiber subscribers as of your most recent quarters, that’s about 35% penetration [1.]. What do you think is the right target for your fiber penetration and how are you going to get there?
Note 1. Fiber-based broadband has clearly established itself as a growth engine for AT&T, which added another 246,000 fiber subscribers in Q2 2021, ending the period with 5.43 million. With about 80% of new fiber subscriber additions new to AT&T, overall broadband revenue growth at the company has finally surpassed declines in its legacy, non-fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband business.
Stankey replied: If I look what’s happening right now, and kind of where we are in our maturity scale, one of the things I’m most excited about is our new net adds to fiber right now good, almost 80% of them are new to AT&T. So, we’ve now gotten to this place where we’ve been managing the base. And we’re now shifting over where got a lot of new customers coming in. And in fact, as you saw last quarter, we’re starting to get ourselves to a point where that consumer business is a growth business today, despite the legacy drag on historic telecom products, parts and the like of legacy data products, that the fiber growth is beginning to outstrip that where we have real growth in that business. And we’re now starting to turn that corner real EBITDA growth in that business. And so, I would tell you as I step back from that, we’re going to see consistent growth. But I’m not going to be happy until we have a 50:50 share split in places where there’s two capable broadband providers. And I think there’s no reason with the product is capable as what we have out there and how fiber performs and what we’re able to do and the differentials we see in our customer satisfaction to our most significant competitor often cable in those markets, we were looking at 10, 15 points of difference in satisfaction levels, between other players in the market and ourselves, that we shouldn’t be able to achieve that over time.
Brett Feldman: You had earlier made a slight adjustment to your fiber deployment for this year, you were hoping to do 3 million homes, it’s going to be closer to two and half million and you noted some of the well reported supply chain issues as being a factor. Any update there, is there any further disruption in your supply chains and your ability to secure labor?
And we’re talking about what’s probably effectively about a 90 day delay for us to hit those numbers, and really primarily in this case, got to fiber assemblies. The way fibers built in the distribution network is we engineer it, we provide detailed engineering to our manufacturer, the manufacturer in the manufacturing facility, pre-splices and pre-assembles some of that fiber before we receive it. So, when it goes in, we’re doing less field splicing. And we’re able to basically put it up in the air or bring it through infrastructure in a way that lowers labor costs coming in. And we’re having some supply issues in the factory partly labor driven because of COVID, individuals getting sick not being able to run enough shifts, and carry through and partly some raw material issues. But those have been worked through right now our deliveries over the last 30 days have tracked to what our expectations are.
So, we feel like we’re through that dynamic right now. We should be fine with it. But look the supply chain is fragile at all levels. It’s fragile on everything. Last week, it was the number of generators, we’re deploying for power backup on cell sites, there’s, we’re going to miss a target on some of those by a couple 100 because there’s a resin base connector in the harness and we can’t get the resin. And that resin base connector, it’s a $15,000 generator that’s been held up on something that’s $0.25 part, you see these things popping up, left and right, every corner of the business. So, I don’t know what next week brings, we’re aggressively managing it. We’ve got a great supply chain organization. We’re a scaled provider, with all of our vendors. So, we lean into that, we were able to work through the fiber dynamics because we are the largest consumer of fiber in the United States. We use that ability and that expertise to make sure we get what we need to move through. So, I feel we’re managing through it, okay. I don’t think there’s anything around the challenges we’re dealing with, it gives me concern on guidance where we stand right now, but it’s going to be choppy and a little bumpy moving forward on some of these things as we move through the years.
Typical fiber optic deployment to multiple homes via underground and aerial cable
Stankey wouldn’t say how the proposed U.S. infrastructure bill might also alter AT&T’s outlook in a way that encourages the company to explore a buildout that goes beyond 30 million locations.
“There’s a degree of uncertainty there,” he said of the bill. “But in its current form [and if] it does actually make its way into law, that’s going to change the landscape of the broadband business in this country … It will also change my posture and point of view on where we should be playing as a company.”