Nokia today announced the opening of a new research and development center focused on 5G and future 6G mobile network technology at its Portuguese campus in Amadora. The center will create employment across several different disciplines and advance research in technologies that are vital components of current 5G and future 6G networks. Last year, Nokia signed a deal with the Portuguese government to open a Global Business Services Center and participate in initiatives that promote digital skills. Apparently, this is part of that industry initiative.
The research and development center will create multiple highly skilled jobs focusing on the advanced development of software to support mobile networks. The center will oversee the full cycle of embedded and real-time software development from early analysis to final delivery. It will bring together professionals from diverse technical disciplines, including software engineers, product owners, and technical leads to work alongside teams around the world.
Tommi Uitto, President of Nokia Mobile Networks, said: “The new research and development center in Portugal demonstrates Nokia’s continued investment in the future of wireless communications. The center’s vital work will continue to expand the possibilities of mobile networks, critical for seamlessly connecting people, businesses, and industries. Importantly, this will be a hub for innovation, reinforcing our 5G technology leadership and helping to realize our ambition to become a 6G pioneer.”
Sérgio Catalão, Country Manager, of Nokia Portugal, said: “The announcement made today is a testament to the continued solid operation of Nokia in the country, reinforced once again by a collaboration with the Portuguese Government. This project reinforces our commitment to supporting Portugal’s digital transformation with our market-leading technology by working in close cooperation with academia, as well as bolstering our team with the best talent.”
A vibrant technology ecosystem, highly skilled talent pool, country stability, and location in Europe were contributing factors for Nokia to locate the research and development center in Portugal. The company has been an important innovation hub for Nokia globally through its units in Amadora and Aveiro and hosts services centers that remotely manage broadband networks for some of the leading global operators. The center follows a strategic agreement signed last year with the Portuguese government to open a Global Business Services Center and participate in initiatives that promote digital skills. The company has close to 2,800 employees in the country.
Comment & Analysis:
There are quite a few on these new 5G/6G Research Centers being opened all over the world. We wonder what “research will actually be done” as detailed programs have not been disclosed. Ericsson announced last week that it was investing heavily in a new research facility in the UK. The objective is to conduct research projects that ultimately contribute to the global development of 6G. Focus areas include network resilience and security, AI, cognitive networks, and energy efficiency.
We think the research efforts should be directed at solving the problems of 5G such as an implementation standard for 5G SA Core networks to facilitate multi-vendor interoperability of both hardware and software. Another urgent 5G issue is to reduce the huge power consumption of 5G base stations, especially for mmW frequencies.
At long last, the FCC has released the first public version of its National Broadband Map. The new map is consequential as it will inform how many millions or billions of dollars each state and territory gets from the federal government for broadband infrastructure.
The broadband map’s release follows an effort that began in September to give Internet service providers (ISPs) and local governments an opportunity to review and challenge broadband data findings. That followed an initial FCC broadband data collection process that began in June. IEEE Techblog summarized that and more in this post.
“Today is an important milestone in our effort to help everyone, everywhere get specific information about what broadband options are available for their homes, and pinpointing places in the country where communities do not have the service they need,” said Chairwoman Rosenworcel. “Our pre-production draft maps are a first step in a long-term effort to continuously improve our data as consumers, providers and others share information with us. By painting a more accurate picture of where broadband is and is not, local, state, and federal partners can better work together to ensure no one is left on the wrong side of the digital divide.”
The public will be able to view the maps at broadbandmap.fcc.gov and search for their address to see information about the fixed and mobile services that internet providers report are available there. If the fixed internet services shown are not available at the user’s location, they may file a challenge with the FCC directly through the map interface to correct the information.
Map users will also be able correct information about their location and add their location to the map if it is missing. The draft map will also allow users to view the mobile wireless coverage reported by cellular service providers.
The FCC also announced the launch of an updated version of the FCC Speed Test App that will enable users to quickly compare the performance and coverage of their mobile networks to that reported by their provider. The app allows users to submit their mobile speed test data in support of a challenge to a wireless service provider’s claimed coverage.
Today’s debut marks the start of the public’s ability to offer challenges as well. The FCC has asked for challenges to the map data to be submitted between now and January 13, 2023, so that corrections can be included in a finalized version of the map.
The final version of the map will be used to distribute funding from the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program in summer 2023. As determined by the Department of Commerce last year, each state will get an initial $100 million from the $42.5 billion BEAD program, with additional funding to be distributed based on the number of unserved and underserved locations, according to the new national broadband map.
Members of the public, along with local governments and providers, will now be able to submit two different types of challenges: location (for example, incorrect location address, incorrect location unit count, etc.) and availability (for example, if the map incorrectly lists a certain provider or broadband technology as available).
While the FCC will continue collecting crowdsourced speed data for fixed speeds, that data is not part of the challenge process. Rather, the map is relying on maximum available advertised speeds.
Additional information sources:
- New users can download the FCC Speed Test App in both the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
- Existing app users should update the app to gain these new features.
- A video tutorial and more information on how to submit challenges is available at fcc.gov/BroadbandData/consumers.
- For more information about the BDC, please visit the Broadband Data Collection website at fcc.gov/BroadbandData.
Cable One [1.] has invested $50 million to acquire a minority stake in northwestern U.S. wireline network operator Ziply Fiber [2.]. Although the investment was made on September 6th, it was first announced Thursday November 3rd when Cable One Chair and CEO Julie Laulis revealed the investment during the company’s Q3 2022 earnings call. She referred to Ziply Fiber as Cable One’s “newest strategic growth partner.” A Ziply representative confirmed the sum from Cable One was part of the $450 million in new funding it announced on September 8th.
Note 1. Cable One is an American broadband communications provider. Under the Sparklight brand, it provides service to 21 states and 900,000 residential and business customers. It is headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, though it does not serve that metro area.
Note 2. Ziply Fiber was formed from the acquisition of Frontier Communications operations in Washington, Oregon and Montana. Ziply has an ambitious fiber buildout/upgrade plan with the launch of symmetrical, multi-gigabit broadband speed tiers.
In a 10-Q filing, Cable One stated it invested an initial $22.2 million in Ziply in November 2022 and expects to invest the remaining $27.8 million before the end of September 2023. Its investment netted the company less than a 10% equity interest in Ziply.
“We are investing alongside proven operational and financial leaders that we have maintained long-term trusted relationships with and they continue to demonstrate the ability to deliver strong results and shareholder returns that align with our rigorous standards,” a Cable One spokesman told Light Reading.
Other highlights from Cable One’s Q3-2022 results and earnings call:
- Total revenues were $424.7 million in the third quarter of 2022 compared to $430.2 million in the third quarter of 2021. Year-over-year, residential data revenues increased 6.3% and business services revenues decreased 11.5%. Revenues for the third quarter of 2022 included $4.9 million from CableAmerica(1) operations. Revenues for the third quarter of 2021 included $16.3 million from operations that were contributed to Clearwave Fiber(1) and from the Divested Operations, of which a substantial majority consisted of business services revenues.
- Net income was $70.6 million in the third quarter of 2022, an increase of 35.1% year-over-year. Adjusted EBITDA was $224.6 million in the third quarter of 2022, an increase of 1.9% year-over-year. Net profit margin was 16.6% and Adjusted EBITDA margin(2) was 52.9%.
- Revenues decreased $5.5 million, or 1.3%, to $424.7 million for the third quarter of 2022 due primarily to the contribution of operations to Clearwave Fiber and the disposition of the Divested Operations during 2022 that collectively generated $16.3 million of revenues in the prior year quarter, predominantly consisting of business services revenues, and decreases in residential video and residential voice revenues. The decrease was partially offset by increases in higher margin residential data and business services revenues from continuing operations and the addition of CableAmerica operations.
- Cable One, like other cable operators, is seeing a slowdown in consumer move activity across its footprint. The operator posted an organic gain of just 1,800 broadband subs in the quarter, according to MoffettNathanson, a division of SVB Securities.
- Sell-in for 1-Gig service has accelerated to nearly 32%.
- Cable One’s average revenue per user (ARPU) rose 15%, to $80.46, as customers migrated to faster, higher-priced services or took an unlimited data plan.
- Rate increases are “absolutely on the table,” Laulis said.
- Average data usage reached about 580 gigabytes per month in Q3, up 19% year-over-year.
- Cable One, which has DOCSIS 4.0 on its roadmap, has tested symmetrical multi-gigabit speeds, but did not say when it might launch such services.
- FWA adoption in Cable One’s markets “remains low,” Laulis said.
- Video losses hit 18,000, widened from a year-ago loss of 8,000. Reflecting Cable One’s de-emphasis on video and its laser-focus on broadband, the company’s video base eroded by another 28% year-over-year.
At the start of 2022, Cable One along with three private equity companies formed a joint venture called Clearwave Fiber, aiming to reach 500,000 rural locations by 2027. Cable One contributed assets from its Illinois-focused Clearwave Communications and South Carolina-based Hargray Communications businesses as part of the deal. Shortly after its formation, Clearwave Fiber acquired the assets of Kansas-based operator RG Fiber to gain a foothold in the state.
Earlier this week, Clearwave Fiber revealed it has already crossed the 100,000 passings mark. By the end of this year, the company said its services will be available in a total of 35 markets across four states: Illinois, Kansas, Georgia and Florida.
The optical communications industry entered 2020 with very strong momentum. Demand for DWDM, Ethernet, and wireless fronthaul connectivity surged at the end of 2019, and major shifts to work-at-home and school-at-home in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic created even stronger demand for faster, more ubiquitous, higher reliability networks.
While supply chain disruptions continued, the industry was able to largely overcome them, and the market for optical components and modules saw strong growth in 2020 and 2021, as shown in the figure below. Light Counting believes the transceiver market is on track for another year of strong (14%) revenue growth in 2022, after increasing by 10% in 2021, and 17% in 2020. However, market growth is projected to slow to 4% in 2023, prior to recovering in 2024-2025.
Demand for optics is strong across all market segments, but continuing bottlenecks in the global supply chain negatively impacted sales of 400G DR4 and 100G DR1+ transceivers to Amazon in the first 9 month of 2022. Meta increased its deployments of optics sharply this year, but its latest forecast for 2023 has been reduced substantially. We suspect that Amazon and other cloud companies may moderate their investments in 2023, if the current economic slowdown continues to negatively impact their advertising, streaming, and retail businesses.
LightCounting’s latest forecast projects a 11% CAGR in 2022-2027, not very different from the 13% CAGR in the forecast published in October 2021. Strong sales of DWDM and Ethernet optics accounted for most of the market growth in 2021 and these segments are projected to lead the growth in 2022-2027. Sales of optical interconnects, mostly Active Optical Cables (AOCs), will also increase at double digit rates over the next 5 years. PON sales for FTTx networks will remain steady, as the China market ends its 10G cycle and North America and Europe ramp up 10G PON deployments, driven by government funding programs. 25G and 50G PON provide new growth later in the forecast period. Wireless fronthaul is one area of weakness, since 5G network deployments in China are reaching completion. This segment will return to growth in 2026-2027 with the onset of 6G deployments (which we don’t think will happen till many years later).
Demand for Ethernet switches from Cloud companies created a new market segment for very high bandwidth switches and switch ASICs. It also transformed the industry supply chain as Cloud companies started using internally designed Ethernet switches and opening these “white box” designs to a broader community.
LightCounting’s report on Ethernet switch ASICs was first published in April 2022, and today the first update has been released. The report covers the most interesting segment of the switching ASIC market – high bandwidth (3.2T and above), low latency chips deployed in Cloud datacenters. The report offers brief profiles of the leading suppliers of merchant switch ASIC and system integrators, offering products to Cloud companies, and includes a forecast for sales of 3.2 to 51.2T switch ASICs.
The updated report now includes 3.2T/6.4T chips in addition to the higher speed products. This change added close to $1 billion to the total market size compared to our April estimate. The forecast includes chips sold in the merchant market as well as chips used by Cisco in their own equipment (captive market). A lower forecast for 2023 compared to our April 2022 edition reflects reduced guidance by the leading Cloud companies for datacenter upgrades planned for next year. Despite a reduced forecast, the overall market is expected to roughly double in size from $1.8 billion in 2023 to $3.6 billion in 2027.
A new report by the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), the Private-Mobile-Networks August 2022 report, has identified 66 MNO’s and 70 countries/territories where organisations are involved with private mobile network projects. This equates to 889 organisations deploying LTE or 5G Private Mobile Networks (PMN) in one or more locations – up from 794 reported in June 2022.
Manufacturing is the major adopter of Private Mobile Networks with 165 identified companies, growth of almost 50% from the end of 2021, with other strong interest from education, mining, and power utilities sectors.
LTE is the dominant technology, used in 672 of the private mobile networks for which GSA has data, whilst 5G is being deployed by 354 organisations. 5G Standalone currently accounts for just thirty-seven deployments.
The USA leads the way with the most organisations deploying private networks based on LTE or 5G, followed by Germany, China, the UK, and Japan.
Joe Barrett, President of the Global mobile Suppliers Association called private mobile networks a microcosm of the wider 4G and 5G ecosystem and reported “a strong positive correlation between liberalised spectrum and the adoption of private mobile networks.”
An executive summary of the report is available from the GSA website based on dataset of over 50 equipment vendors, 66 operators and 70 countries and territories.
by Fayre Fan (edited by Alan J Weissberger)
The fiber optic transceiver is the core component of optical communications. It is used to realize optical-to-electrical conversion. The transmitter converts the electrical signal into an optical signal, while the receiver does the reverse – it converts the optical signal into an electrical signal.
Increasingly, fiber optics is being used for the transport of 5G signals to and from the edge of the carrier’s wide area network. Optical transceivers are the basic component of 5G backhaul, midhaul and fronthaul. Their cost accounts for 50%~70% of the total 5G network costs.
Low cost is the key appeal of the 5G optical transceivers. The industry has carried out extensive research on 5G optical module technology, and currently, there are many solutions.
Increasing demands for 5G transceivers: low cost is the key to 5G optical module:
The growth of optical modules in the 5G network mainly comes from three factors:
- More base stations are needed in the high-frequency band.
- Larger bandwidth is required for high-speed rates.
- More connections are required for added midhaul transmission links.
Global top suppliers of 5G base stations include Huawei (China), Ericson (Sweden), Nokia (Finland), ZTE (China), and Samsung (Korea). China is the largest 5G market, which has captured about 74% of the market, followed by Korea and Europe.
The development of the global 5G network market stimulates the increasing demand for 5G optical transceivers. According to the forecast data from Lightcounting, the global market share of 5G fronthaul transceivers will reach 657/632/593 million dollars in 2022~2024. 5G midhaul and backhaul transceivers will reach 242/245/247 million dollars respectively. Therefore, reducing cost is a key objective of 5G transceiver development. Here’s an illustration of backhaul, midhaul and fronthaul:
5G fronthaul -demand for 25G BiDi transceiver:
In the 4G fronthaul network, the most commonly used transceivers are single-mode 10G duplex transceivers. 5G network has higher requirements for the data rate and optical interface of transceivers. In consideration of saving fiber resources and maintaining high-precision synchronization of uplink and downlink, the simplex bi-directional (BiDi) transceiver allowing data transmitting and receiving over one single fiber, is superior to duplex transceivers. Moreover, considering the 5G download rate is at least 10 times higher than that of the 4G network, the 25 Gbit/s data rate is also necessary for the 5G fronthaul transceivers. Taken together, 25G BiDi transceivers are needed for 5G fronthaul networks.
Optical Transceivers for 5G Front-Haul
|Data Rate||Form Type||Transmission Distance||Wavelength||Modulation Format||Transmitter & Receiver|
5G midhaul and backhaul – demand for 50G/100G/200G/400G transceivers:
The 5G midhaul and backhaul are mainly carried through the metro access layer, convergence layer, and core layer. For the access layer, 50G/100G transceivers are commonly used. For example, 50G PAM4 transceiver is a cost-effective solution for 5G midhaul and backhaul. It is based on 25G optical components and PAM4 (Pulse Amplitude Modulation 4-level) modulation. For the convergence layer and core layer, 100G/200G/400Gb/s DWDM transceivers are mainly used. And low-cost coherent 100G/200G/400G transceivers are welcomed, which mainly use QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) modulation and DSP (Digital Signal Processing) technology.
Optical Transceivers for 5G Mid-Haul/Back-Haul
|Data Rate||Form Type||Transmission Distance||Wavelength||Modulation Format||Transmitter & Receiver|
Technological innovations of 5G transceivers:
Optical transceiver-related technology mainly includes packaging technology and optoelectronic components technology.
In terms of packaging technology, 5G transceivers can adopt existing mature packaging technologies. For example, since 25G BiDi has a similar optical structure to that of 10G BiDi, the common TO-CAN (transistor-outline-can) package can be used to save cost.
The most vital technological innovation aims at optoelectronic components technology. The technological innovation of optoelectronic devices mainly aims at these goals: function expansion, data rate increase, and cost reduction.
Function expansion innovation of laser chips example: industrial-grade laser chips no longer require temperature control devices, the laser chip used in the non-airtight environment no longer requires the expensive airtight package, the laser chip with a small divergence angle no longer requires an expensive non-spherical lens, anti-reflection laser chips no longer require isolators, etc. Those technologies simplify the packaging of the optical module, also providing higher reliability and lower cost.
Data rate increase innovation includes example: the 50G PAM4 optical module uses a 25G baud rate laser/detector, and an electrical chip with high linearity. Compared with the 25G NRZ (non-return to zero) optical module, it allows for higher bandwidth.
Cost reduction innovation example: coherent 100G transceiver, it reduces the cost on the premise of meeting the transmission distance requirement within 200km.
Ultimately, the key technologies of 5G optical modules are mainly reflected in the innovation of optoelectronic chips. The specific technologies include:
- Industrial temperature grade high-speed laser chip technology
- High linearity 25G baud rate DFB chip and EML chip technology
- Low-cost 25G wavelength tunable laser chip technology
- Low-cost coherent 100G/200G/400G optical transceiver technology
For example, Marvell and OE Solutions recently announced a collaboration to deliver the industry’s first production-ready 100G QSFP-DD optical modules optimized for 5G backhaul and Metro Access applications.
In conclusion, 5G optical transceivers will play a more important role in the entire optical module market compared with the 4G era. Technological innovation will be the main driver to realize the low-cost 5G optical modules.
Finnish network operator DNA [1.] said it achieved the highest average 5G download speed in seven out of eight cities measured in Omnitele’s latest benchmark of local mobile networks. Speeds were compared in Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Tampere, Turku, Jyvaskyla, Lahti and Pori. All of those cities showed a generally high level of performance due to the expansion of DNA’s 5G network.
Note 1. DNA Oyj (DNA Plc) is a Finnish telecommunications group that provides voice, data and TV services. In December 2020, it had over 3.5 million subscription customers.
DNA achieved average scores over 30 percent faster than its nearest competitor in Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa, and its lead was even greater in Lahti, at over 50 percent faster.
Across all the measurements, DNA had the highest speed, at 588 Mbps, followed by Elisa with 460 Mbps and Telia at 413 Mbps. The research was conducted in June and July 2022.
DNA says, “With the DNA Koti 5G connection, you get guaranteed fast internet and congestion-free access to your Nettikaista turnkey installation. Our installer brings all the equipment with him, installs the external receiver and ensures that the 5G internet works.”
DNA’s 5G network already covers half of Finns – and the network is expanding to new areas all the time. In a study conducted by Omnitele, the average download speed of DNA’s mobile network was the highest in the cities : Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Lahti, Pori, Turku and Tampere.
Frontier Communications reported better than expected 2nd quarter 2022 results on Friday. Operating income was $166 million and net income was $101 million for the 2nd quarter 2022. Adjusted EBITDA was $535 million, representing sequential growth of 5.1% from the first quarter of 2022, driven by the sequential increase in Consumer revenue, accelerating cost reductions, and a one-time $8 million sales tax refund. Adjusted EBITDA declined from $628 million in the second quarter of 2021 primarily due to subsidy-related revenue declines, partially offset by lower operating expenses and cost savings initiatives.
The fiber facilities based telco set another fiber network buildout record in the second quarter of 2022. Frontier also raised its fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) buildout target for the full year to a range of 1.1 million to 1.2 million locations, up 10% to 20% from an earlier target of about 1 million locations.. Capital expenditures were $641 million, an increase from $385 million in the second quarter of 2021, as fiber expansion initiatives accelerated. Frontier’s fiber network passed 4.4 million locations (out of a total fiber footprint of 15 million locations covering parts of 25 states), a marker on the way to a grander plan to build FTTP to at least 10 million locations by 2025.
“Frontier is Building Gigabit America. We are deploying fiber and connecting people to the digital society at a record pace,” said Nick Jeffery, President and Chief Executive Officer of Frontier. “We have the second-largest fiber build in the country and this expansion is unlocking new opportunities to meet increased consumer demand for blazing-fast fiber broadband while driving efficiencies across our business.”
Mr. Jeffery continued, “In the second quarter, we saw the impact of our operational success translate into financial growth, and we delivered sequential EBITDA growth ahead of schedule. Our team’s operational discipline over the last year has improved Frontier’s financial trajectory and positioned us as the preferred digital partner for customers across our footprint.”
Second-quarter 2022 Highlights:
- Built fiber to a record 281,000 locations
- Added 54,000 fiber broadband customer net additions, resulting in fiber broadband customer growth of 13.4% compared with the second quarter of 2021
- Revenue of $1.46 billion, net income of $101 million, and Adjusted EBITDA of $535 million
- Capital expenditures of $641 million, including $325 million of non-subsidy-related build capital expenditures
- Net cash from operations of $229 million, driven by healthy operating performance and increased focus on working capital management
- Raised $1.20 billion of debt in May, contributing to liquidity of approximately $3.70 billion
Frontier was able to accelerate its Q2 fiber buildout and expand its full 2022 target in the face of a “challenging supply chain and macroeconomic environment,” Jeffery said on the company’s Q2 earnings call on Friday August 5th. Jeffery noted that Frontier has diversified its fiber build into six additional states and plans to be building in at least 12 states by the end of the year. “This geographic diversity expands our opportunity to build fiber and provides redundancy for maintaining our build pace,” he said. Frontier is pairing that with additional contracts for both labor and equipment and realizing cost efficiencies using a blend of “cluster density” and new construction techniques – moves that are helping the company manage through both inflation and labor-related challenges, Jeffery added.
Frontier’s current FTTP buildout plan covering 10 million locations focuses on a portion of its footprint referred to as Wave 1 and Wave 2. The telco is also piecing together a plan for Wave 3 – a portion of its footprint with 5 million locations in rural areas deemed to be financially less attractive to build fiber.
However, Frontier execs said a fresh analysis indicates that between 1 million to 2 million of those Wave 3 locations can be converted to FTTP economically without government subsidies.
John Stratton, Frontier’s executive chairman, said the other 3 million to 4 million remaining locations in Wave 3 could also meet the company’s return-on-investment thresholds depending on how the distribution of some $42 billion in federal infrastructure funding pans out in the coming years. However, the overall funding plan for a Wave 3 build is still being ironed out. Frontier is also exploring other options for Wave 3, including partnerships and joint ventures.
As US cable operators and telcos struggled to gain broadband subs in Q2 2022, Frontier bucked the trend, adding 9,000 total broadband subs in the period when a loss of 41,000 legacy DSL/copper subs were included. Jeffery estimated that between 45% to 50% of all new Frontier fiber subs selected speeds of 1-Gig or more. Frontier launched a symmetrical 2-Gig fiber service in February.
Copper-to-fiber migrations are part of Frontier’s subscriber total, but the “vast majority” of those additions are coming from new customers, CFO Scott Beasley said.
“I think it’s clear to see from recent results that, as we’ve always said, fiber is a superior product to cable,” Jeffery said. “And while the cable and fiber market remains competitive, it’s also worth reminding ourselves that in our specific footprint, we have 84% of that where we have one or fewer competitors today. That said, in this quarter, we gained share against every competitor in every geography we operate in.”
Comments from Nick Del Deo, Senior Analyst at MoffettNathanson:
Frontier’s overall results in Q2 were solid, particularly with respect to financial metrics. On the subscriber front, Frontier continues to expand its fiber broadband base, adding 54K total fiber broadband customers (consumer and business), the same as in Q1, with a nice uptick in SMB adds (1K in Q4, 2K in Q1, and 4K in Q2). Gains came from both base markets and expansion markets. Copper losses also ticked up, but the company still added broadband customers overall, the third consecutive quarter it has done so. The company achieved this despite Q2 seasonality (primarily snowbirds in its Florida markets) and churning out nonpaying copper customers with the expiration of COVID-era requirements. Frontier is not seeing any deterioration in bad debt or customer payment trends with shifts in the macro environment.
In Q2, the cable industry posted total broadband net adds that were approximately zero, the first time this has happened since cable broadband was introduced about 25 years ago. Frontier’s telco peers reported weak results, too, with little change in fiber adds and heightened DSL losses. The management teams pegged the performance, to varying degrees, on: low gross connects stemming from low move rates; a return of seasonality that disappeared during the pandemic (e.g., college students); competition, most notably from fixed wireless (though this was not uniformly described as material); a pull-forward of some demand due to COVID over the past couple of years; and disconnects associated with government support programs rolling off. [Rightly or wrongly, market saturation has not been cited as a possible headwind.]
Frontier has banked the future of the company on broadband net adds, with a plan to upgrade a large portion of its footprint to FTTH and take share, primarily from the cable operators. The accelerating growth of Frontier’s fiber footprint offers some protection from market-wide trends, since it should mechanically gain net subscribers where it upgrades from copper to fiber. But Frontier has something else going for it, too: an ongoing transition from a company with weak management, a poorly received brand (to be generous), bad customer service, and no strategic focus to the opposite. These “softer” attributes matter.
Frontier stepped up the pace of its fiber expansion in Q2, adding 281K locations vs. 211K last quarter, and expects to reach 1.1-1.2M homes this year. While it remains early, Frontier’s expansion fiber cohort penetration rates remain encouraging; the 2020 build cohort stands at 22% at 12 months and 44% at 24 months, albeit on a small base of “golden” trials, while its larger 2021 build cohort stands at 17% at 12 months, right in the middle of its target range. While acknowledging “pockets” of expense pressure, the company remains confident in its $900-1,000 cost per location target. Management indicated that it now believes 1-2M of its 5M wave three locations, which have been set aside from an upgrade perspective, can be profitably converted to fiber without government subsidies (the 3-4M latter require support). The company did not announce specific changes to its fiber build plans with this update, but did note that some of these locations may be sprinkled in to the plans it has previously laid out. Management suggested these 1-2M locations would have a somewhat lower return profile than its wave two locations, in mid-teens rather than mid-to-high-teens. Financial results in Q2 were better than expected. Revenue was 0.8% ahead of consensus, with the effects of sustained fiber net adds and a jump in copper broadband ARPU driving the outperformance. EBITDA was 4.7% higher than consensus and was up sequentially.
Investors should expect slower growth ahead for cable companies Comcast and Charter Communications, according to Barclays. Analyst Kannan Venkateshwar downgraded shares of Comcast to equal weight, and shares of Spectrum parent company Charter to underweight, pointing to dwindling subscriber numbers.Barclay’s noted dwindling subscriber numbers for the two companies.
A key source of concern among cable investors is the presence of emerging competition in the market for internet services, as wireless companies push forward with fiber and fixed-wireless-access offerings. While Comcast’s and Charter’s management teams made some acknowledgment of the competitive landscape on their earnings calls, they maintained that the biggest factor driving recent performance was that people have been moving homes in smaller numbers than before.
Venkateshwar didn’t seem sold on the cable companies’ explanations. “While cable has gained share vs DSL over time and therefore lower moves would impact growth rates, it is mathematically impossible to get to negative growth as seen last quarter, purely on account of lower move activity,” he wrote. “In addition, the decline in move activity is not new and has been going on for years and tends to worsen during recessions.”
He added that even if move rates were to improve, “there are new elements that are likely to reduce cable’s share of gross adds” — namely the emerging competitive dynamics.
“Charter’s management almost seems in denial of competition in talking down its impact, but if TMUS does grow fixed wireless access (FWA) to the full extent of its guidance range (~500k+/quarter), TMUS alone would be bigger than Altice by the end of next year,” Venkateshwar continued. “It is tough to see this not impacting cable structurally when cable net adds overall have been ~3mm in normal years and TMUS and VZ alone could add 2-2.5mm FWA subs a year.”
Venkateshwar isn’t sure that FWA represents “a viable solution for telecom operators long term” given capacity requirements, but said that for the moment, T-Mobile US Inc.and Verizon Communications Inc. have “low marginal costs due to excess spectrum.”
“Consequently, even if FWA proves unviable long term, it could still be a significant headwind for cable over the next 2-3 years,” he wrote.
Additionally, with the help of government funding, more people could move from DSL over to fiber, which would benefit AT&T which has been laser focused on growing its fiber footprint.
Venkateshwar acknowledged that one criticism of his analysis may be that he isn’t giving the cable companies enough credit for growing their own footprints, but he doesn’t see much correlation between footprint expansion and broadband growth rates for Comcast, Charter, and Altice USA Inc. when looking at the past five years. Accordingly, he expects the companies could get even less marginal benefit in a world with growing competition.
“Overall, these factors imply that the largest cable companies, Comcast and Charter, are likely past peak growth and the debate therefore boils down to the degree of downside to broadband net adds going forward,” he wrote. Venkateshwar said that his analyst suggests “cable providers could be at flat growth next year and potentially negative thereafter unless their pace of footprint expansion and marginal penetration of this expanded base accelerates.”
He noted that the companies have been growing wireless subscribers, though he has questions about the long-term economic potential of their wireless involvement. As it stands, Charter and Comcast have a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) arrangement with Verizon that allows the companies to leverage Verizon’s network.
This strategy makes sense to test out the market and launch a service, but to anchor long-term strategic pivot of the scale that cable companies are attempting on someone else’s network is not viable in our view,” he wrote. “If cable companies continue to face challenges in broadband, which we think is likely, they may have little choice but to invest in more extensive wireless infrastructure in some form to extract the benefit of scale in wireless.”
AT&T remains committed to investing in its network operations, including a focus on its 5G and fiber-optic related assets. AT&T gained 813,000 mobile postpaid subscribers during the quarter that ended in June, more than doubling analyst predictions and raising its wireless revenue forecast for 2022.
AT&T posted flat results for its now dominate communications segment, which includes its 5G wireless, wireline, and fiber operations. Segment revenues increased 2% year over year to $28.7 billion. However, increased costs and a loss of wireline customers dropped segment operating income by 2.1% to $7.2 billion.
AT&T CEO John Stankey said on today’s earnings call:
“In Fiber, we continue to invest in building out a premium network, drive a great build velocity and deliver on our stated expectations for accelerated customer growth through improved penetration rates. We’re finding success in serving more customers in new and existing markets with what we believe is the best wired Internet offering available. This is evidenced by our more than 300,000 second quarter AT&T Fiber net adds, marking our 10th straight quarter with more than 200,000 Fiber net adds.
The strength and value of the AT&T Fiber experience is enabling us to increase share in our Fiber footprint and convert more IP broadband Internet subscribers to Fiber subscribers. Ultimately, our Fiber strategy is a sustainable and long-term technology play that will support key macro trends.
We expect to see a continuation of favorable ARPU trends as we expand the availability of what we believe is a best-in-class network with a multi-decade lifespan. So I’m very pleased with the strong customer growth we’re seeing.
Our success only reinforces the improved value proposition we’re providing, and we expect our investment in top-tier technology to translate into strong resiliency for our services for years to come.
Over the last eight quarters, we’ve achieved an industry-best six million postpaid phone net adds while adding nearly 2.3 million AT&T Fiber customers, increasing our Fiber subscriber base by more than 50%. I’m also very proud with the progress our teams have made in rapidly expanding our 5G and fiber footprints.
I’m pleased to say that we’ve achieved our target of covering 70 million mid-band POPs 2 quarters ahead of our year-end target, and are now on track to approach 100 million mid-band POPs by the end of this year.”
AT&T reduced its free cash flow expectations (FCF), saying that customers were paying bills later than usual due to economic stress. AT&T said it now expects 2022 free cash flow of $14 billion. About $1 billion of the difference was tied to the “timing of customer collections.”
The gloomier FCF outlook overshadowed second-quarter results that topped estimates for profit and wireless subscriber growth.
AT&T CFO Pascal Desroches told investors that AT&T was bracing for a delay in consumers paying their bills due to surging recession concerns. He explained that “it’s taking about two more days than last year to collect customer receivables,” which resulted in a $1 billion impact in Q2, and that AT&T had around $130 million in higher bad debt expense.
“While bad debt is now slightly higher than pre-pandemic levels, it is being offset by better than expected customer revenue growth,” Desroches said, citing recent price increases.
Desroches also warned that AT&T was cutting its full-year free-cash-flow guidance from $16 billion down to $14 billion due to ongoing economic and recession uncertainty. That cut looked modest next to the carrier only posting $4 billion in free cash flow for the first half of the year, which was well below expectations.
The executive explained that AT&T had front-loaded its $24 billion in full-year capex due to its mid-band 5G and fiber deployments. This will lessen second-half spend needs, though AT&T remains committed to spending another $24 billion on capex in 2023.
“It underscores the importance of transitioning to our own operating connectivity services as well as rolling 5G and fiber integrated solutions,” Desroches said of its capex push. “In fact, our connectivity services revenue growth continues to accelerate as we are up nearly 15% year over year. Both areas, business 5G and fiber, continue to perform well.”
AT&T has previously stated that its ability to tie together its 5G and fiber networks allow it to better support enterprise SD-WAN, secure access service edge (SASE), and security needs. The carrier has struck a number of deals with vendors like Cisco, Fortinet, and Palo Alto Networks to power these SD-WAN, SASE, and security initiatives.
“As people migrate away from VPN and we have a more dense fiber base, we’re selling more fundamental underlying transport, frankly, at higher speeds and therefore higher connection values in that segment of the market, and that’s where our future is,” added AT&T CEO John Stankey on the Q2 call.
Analyst Craig Moffett Comments:
To be sure, AT&T’s results in Mobility haven’t been bad. They’ve walked a tightrope of heavy promotions in return for good-enough subscriber growth, and, up to now. On the back
of those passably good results in Mobility, the company has (arguably) provided at least some degree of confidence that they can sustain their new, lowered, dividend.
Meanwhile, they’ve promised faster capital spending on fiber deployment in their Consumer Wireline segment, something they have promised will result in at least positive longer-term growth in a segment that accounts for about 10% of revenues. (They’ve largely been silent about their much larger Business Wireline segment, which is shrinking badly and still getting worse).
AT&T’s consolidated growth prospects rest entirely on their Mobility segment. Their Business Wireline segment, which represents nearly 20% of revenues, is shrinking by high single digits, while their Consumer Wireline segment is at best marginally better than flat. Their Mobility segment has maintained modest service revenue growth through a mix of relatively rapid subscriber growth, offset by shrinking ARPU. Mobility is AT&T’s largest and most important business, accounting for two-thirds of consolidated pro forma revenues.
Subscriber growth trends remain very strong:
• AT&T added 1.06M post-paid subscribers, much better than the Street consensus expectation of 804K, in line with last year’s 1.16M.
• Better still, they added 813K post-paid phone subscribers on an as-reported basis, and with migrations (for comparability to the reporting of the other carriers), would have been a still-impressive 793K. Reported post-paid phone net additions were much better than consensus of 562K, and better than last year’s 789K.
• Pre-paid net additions of 231K also beat Street consensus of 131K, but were down from last year’s 297K gain.
We won’t know the industry’s growth rate until everyone else has reported, but it seems clear that AT&T is gaining unit market share. At their heart of their subscriber gain story is low churn. AT&T’s “best deals for all” promotion continues to keep churn very low.
According to Seeking Alpha, six analysts rate AT&T stock (“T”) a Strong Buy, while seven have a Buy rating on the stock. 15 analyst rate “T” as a Hold, while there are 0 Sell recommendations.