2018 Preview: Wireless operators, content providers, schools will demand more dark fiber

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our 2018 Preview feature, which looks at the big topics facing the industry next year. Click here for the 2018 preview in wireless, click here for the 2018 preview in cable and video, and click here for the 2018 preview in the wireline industry.

When I began covering telecom in 1998, dark fiber initially was used to fuel networks that eventually became today's internet. At that time an overabundance of fiber builds created what some experts called a fiber glut that did not have enough bandwidth hungry applications to take advantage of these new wires.

But when I think of the role of dark fiber in 2018, the focus will be on serving three domains: fronthaul for wireless operators for 4G densification and upcoming 5G deployments; school districts; and content providers.

Wireless operators have mandated that dark fiber for fronthaul will continue to gain momentum as wireless operators move forward with their 5G plans. Simply put, fronthaul is a new radio access network (RAN) and that consists of a centralized base band controllers and radio heads at remote cell sites located numbers of meters away.

One operator that's mandating dark fiber for fronthaul and small cell backhaul is Verizon. In anticipation of its upcoming 4G and 5G deployments, Verizon is taking a multipronged fiber expansion approach: deploying its own fiber, renting facilities from a partner or purchasing regional assets like XO or WOW’s Chicago assets.

Verizon also signed multiyear agreements with Corning and Prysmian for its Fiber One initiative, for example. The telco’s fiber request drove these fiber companies to ramp up their production cycles and expand facilities.

Wendell Weeks, CEO of Corning, said that if other carriers besides Verizon sign similar agreements, it could boost their revenue potential. Corning has set a goal to get to $5 billion in optical sales by 2020 and deals like the one it has with Verizon will get them there. Likewise, Prysmian has begun a $15 million expansion of its fiber manufacturing plant in Lexington County, South Carolina.

“What you saw with this announcement is a statement of their strong belief and technology bet on an architecture to deliver 5G and 4G densification that is largely dependent upon our capabilities,” Weeks said during an investor conference earlier this year. “If others follow this technology choice, it would be extremely significant for us over time.”

And while there was fears Verizon would forgo other methods, it’s clear the carrier will continue to rely on network partners such as Zayo. Zayo revealed it recently won a 500-site deal with a Tier 1 operator, which is rumored to be Verizon.

Fellow wireless and wireline operator AT&T, sees its deployment of fiber to more homes and businesses as means to also support upcoming 5G deployments as well.

But fronthaul is only one application, dark fiber arms dealers will pursue in 2018.

With the FCC’s new E-Rate rules, you can expect more school districts to benefit from dark fiber. Schools are a good target for dark fiber because often reside along the path of wireless operators and small cells so they are a good ad on target for service providers that offer dark fiber.

Service providers like Fatbeam have used school districts as anchor tenants to attract wireless operators and content provider customers. Zayo has been able to leverage its wireless backhaul builds in areas like Texas to extend services to school districts. This concept makes sense as it will allow the fiber provider to maximize their investments.

Finally, content providers and purveyors will also look to dark fiber facilities to Summit IG, which has positioned its dark fiber in Ashburn, Virginia, the largest internet hub, to deliver fiber to content providers and other international carriers. The upstart provider has built out a growing 550-mile network, one that content providers, government providers and cloud operators will continue to consume to satisfy their customers' demands. 

Whether it’s for fronthaul or content providers, the need for dark fiber will continue to rise. Unlike the with the early internet days where the applications were low-bandwidth applications, the bandwidth hungry services consumed by consumers and businesses will require nearly ubiquitous nature only dark fiber can offer.