Frontier CEO says copper decommissioning is 3-5 years out

Frontier Communications still has hundreds of thousands of copper passings, but it doesn’t seem like that footprint will be taken offline anytime soon. CEO Nick Jeffery said during an investor conference this week the operator thinks it can get more bang for its buck deploying fiber than decommissioning copper – at least in the short term.

Jeffery has a history with turning down copper networks, having done so several times in his previous role as CEO of Vodafone UK. He said Frontier has studied the process in “great detail,” with early pilots showing “it’s possible” and “an important source of savings.” But, he added, Frontier expects the majority of savings in the short term to come from fiberizing copper customers rather than decommissioning copper.

“I think full copper decommissioning, central office grooming and all of that sort of stuff is important. But I think when we think about the next use of an incremental dollar, it’s much better spent building fiber in the short run versus copper decommissioning,” he said, noting fiber customers make fewer customer service calls and require fewer truck rolls. “I think full copper decommissioning will be important but I think in a three to five year time horizon.”

That said, Frontier isn’t planning to ignore copper customers until fiber arrives. Jeffery said it is making “very targeted investments” in its copper network, for instance in areas where weather events disproportionately degrade performance. He added it has started communicating with its copper customers again, “which is something the old Frontier had never done.”

“Copper customers are important to us. They’re an important source of cash flow and we want to protect them and love them as much as we can,” he said.

As of the end of Q1 2023, Frontier still had nearly twice as many copper passings as fiber, with 9.9 million copper and 5.5 million fiber locations covered. But the reverse was true of its customer statistics, with 1.6 million fiber broadband customers to 987,000 copper customers. Overall fiber penetration as a percentage of total passings stood at 32.2% while copper was at 11.3%. Fiber penetration within its fiber footprint specifically, however, was 43.5%.

But Frontier isn’t planning to convert all of its copper customers to fiber. Frontier’s Chief Strategy Officer Vishal Dixit previously said it will see how many additional copper customers it can reach with the help of government subsidies. The remainder it will either keep or potentially divest in “some sort of asset swap.”