Here’s how AT&T decides where to apply for fiber funding

FIBER CONNECT, ORLANDO, FL — AT&T is no stranger to public-private partnerships, with deals in place with municipal entities in Indiana, Kentucky and Texas to name a few. It’s also widely expected to participate in the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) program given the 21 states comprising its footprint will have some $25 billion in funding available. But to hear AT&T’s VP of Broadband Strategic Initiatives Amanda Cacheris tell it, the operator is picky about where it chooses to apply for public dollars.

Cacheris told Fierce Telecom AT&T currently has about 130,000 customer locations it is building with government funding today. When it comes to BEAD, she said it plans to pursue a “state-specific strategy” to ensure the builds will be mutually beneficial. For it to be worth AT&T’s while, there are a few things the operator is looking for.

“It has to do with household density, it has to do with the ability to serve multiple geographies, looking at overall footprint, aggregation and continuity. In fact, in a lot of previous grant projects, the contiguous build is an element of focus,” she said.

According to Cacheris, “aggregation” in this case refers to looking at the entire build picture in the aggregate. That includes whether and how AT&T can connect both un- and underserved households, deployment timelines associated with the funding, how the build overlaps with where it has wireless subscribers and towers, where its existing footprint is and what opportunities it might have to, say, retire some of its legacy copper.

Cacheris declined to provide a specific figure but said AT&T expects a “decent percentage” of the $25 billion in available state funding in its footprint will cover locations where it currently has copper.

There are also things AT&T is trying to avoid running up against, she said, including local policy mandates for open access or extreme price freezes.

She said ultimately AT&T won’t be able to finalize its bidding strategy until the states release the specifics of their grant programs.

“There’s multiple different policy items under evaluation and a lot of those heavily influence the ability to bid and win,” she said.

As states do so and then begin the bid evaluation process, Cacheris said it will be important for officials to look for applicants who have a demonstrated track record of being able to complete deployments successfully and supplement that with efforts to ramp up adoption. Otherwise, she warned, unqualified bidders could win out and BEAD could end up in a situation similar to what happened with the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).

In RDOF, some major winners either had their grant awards denied or were forced to withdraw when they couldn’t make the economics work.