Brightspeed becomes 5th largest US ILEC as $7.5B Lumen deal wraps

After more than a year of waiting, Brightspeed finally closed on a $7.5 billion deal to acquire Lumen Technologies’ ILEC assets in 20 states via its parent company Apollo Global Management. Brightspeed CEO Bob Mudge told Fierce the operator is looking to make a name for itself as a new, better ISP through a laser focus on simplicity and customer service as it steps out into the world as the newly-minted fifth largest ILEC in the U.S.

The company’s acquired territory includes 6.5 million locations spreads across the Midwest and Southeast as well as parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the Northeast. The vast majority of its footprint is currently served with copper, but Brightspeed last year unveiled a plan to spend $2 billion to deploy fiber to at least 3 million locations over the course of several years. In recent months, it has detailed build plans spanning more than 1 million locations across 17 states (after Fierce published the linked article, it announced builds in Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and New Jersey).

Mudge told Fierce the company has been working hard with vendor partners Corning and Calix to ensure it has the materials it needs for its projects. He added it also has labor contractors lined up for each of its three primary regions. What it comes down to now, he said, is execution and ramping up all elements of its production line from logistics and engineering to installations.

Once fiber is up and running in each market, Brightspeed plans to offer service tiers providing symmetrical speeds of 200 Mbps, 500 Mbps, 1 Gbps or 2 Gbps, he said.

But the CEO noted Brightspeed is doing more than just building fiber – it’s building a new brand. As it takes over Lumen’s customer base “we want to be known as a whole new provider,” he said. Mudge said that’s not meant as a shot at how Lumen was running things. But as it works to keep and convert copper customers and win back those who may have strayed to cable, the company wants to use the Brightspeed name as a way to “open the door to get people to think of us as new and unique.”

The operator’s playbook reads like it came off the shelf of Frontier Communications CEO Nick Jeffrey. Specifically, Mudge said Brightspeed will zero in on simplicity. "No nonsense, but true basic blocking and tackling on service,” he noted.

About 3,400 employees are making the leap from Lumen to Brightspeed. With the staff it already has, Mudge says that’ll raise its employee tally to just under 4,000.

He noted it plans to immediately beef up the customer-facing staff it’s getting from Lumen by 35%. It is also looking to enhance its field technician workforce, though Mudge said it is still evaluating how many more employees are needed there. Additionally, it is exploring other ways to improve the customer experience by rethinking basics like how its bills look and how it sets appointments for customers.

“Talking about a new brand with the promise of tomorrow, I think it would be very hollow without having immediate service improvements for the customers today,” Mudge said. In addition to improving things like call answering times, “we want to make sure that we’re prepared for the installation work that will come with fiber. We want to make sure that we’re caring for current repair work, copper and DSL.”

Brightspeed will be starting out with around 1.2 million copper customers, around half of which it plans to cover with fiber. Mudge said keeping and converting as many of those customers as possible is a key part of its strategy.

“It’s much easier to hold on to, it’s much cheaper to convert an existing customer than go out and acquire new customers,” he explained. “We’re going to have to do both, but a major piece of our business plan is to convert hundreds of thousands of DSL customers to fiber.”

Beyond Brightspeed’s self-funded expansion plans, Mudge said grants offer an incremental opportunity to take its build further. In North Carolina, where Brightspeed is already planning to push fiber to 300,000 new locations in North Carolina by the end of 2023, the operator has won grants for builds in 30 of the state’s 100 counties. These collectively add 38,000 locations to its plans. It has also snagged a $1.5 million grant to cover around 2,500 locations in Marinette County, Wisconsin and $300,000 to reach around two dozen locations in two rural Louisiana parishes.

“These state funds allow us to go above and beyond what our baseline plan is,” Mudge said. “None of the subsidy work is an overlap with what we were already going to create. So we feel that’s also a really good extension of our own vision.”

All told, Mudge concluded he has "no doubt" it'll end up north of its 3 million-location target by the end of its first three years in operation.