C Spire spotlights backhaul as a major hurdle for rural fiber

Regional U.S. operator C Spire is in the midst of a $1 billion expansion of its fiber network, but while it’s seeing good take rates and penetration as it extends its reach from Mississippi into Alabama it is still up against one major hurdle.

C Spire is the 8th largest fiber provider in the U.S., with more than 9,000 route miles primarily in Mississippi. It launched its first fiber markets in Alabama in December 2020.

Ben Moncrief, C Spire’s SVP of strategic relations and managing director for Alabama, told Fierce the operator needs three things to make its fiber model work without subsidy funding from the government: demand for its product, reasonable population density and access to backhaul. While those three things have been “easy to achieve” in its home state of Mississippi, Moncrief said it has found backhaul much harder to come by in Alabama.

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“The access to long-haul fiber is hard, so that’s a problem we’re having to solve,” he said, adding it’s taking a two-pronged approach to overcome the issue. In some areas, Moncrief said it is just building its own backhaul. But he noted C Spire has also partnered with Alabama Power to tap into excess capacity on their electrical grid fiber.

“That is helping us bridge the gap between say a hub like Birmingham where we have a data center that can power gigabit services to homes and businesses and getting us to” a smaller market like Jasper, he explained.

C Spire supplies backhaul for some electrical co-ops in Mississippi, but Moncrief said the relationship with Alabama power is “the only one where an ISP and an investor-owned utility have partnered together” in a reverse scenario. Thus far, “it’s working well for us,” he added.

The operator currently offers 1-gig residential service using GPON technology. Moncrief said this means in terms of future upgrades “there’s really no limitation on the infrastructure we’re putting in place other than the speed of light. So we feel pretty good about the future-proof nature of our network.”

Through its $1 billion investment, Moncrief said C Spire expects to double its footprint in terms of homes passed. He declined to provide a concrete target or the current number of homes passed, citing the company’s privately-owned status.

While it is currently focused on projects across Alabama and Mississippi, Moncrief said “there is no limit to our ambitions” in terms of further expansion, save a preference for keeping its networks contiguous. “That in some ways limits where we’re looking, but I would say any state in the southeast in which we can provide adjacent fiber is eligible,” he stated. “And we everyday are exploring opportunities either through acquisition or organic build to do that.”