Verizon latest to disclose lead-clad copper cable footprint

Verizon has claimed its copper network is composed of less than 540,000 miles of cable following an investigative journalism exposé from the Wall Street Journal that reported telco companies in the U.S. have left behind a massive network of old cables covered in toxic lead.

The carrier said that lead-sheathed cable makes up a “small percentage” of those miles. But New Street Research estimated that number to be 15%, which would still mean 81,000 miles of Verizon’s copper cable is exposed to lead contamination.  

Telecommunication stocks fell following the WSJ’s report, including Frontier, Lumen, Uniti and Consolidated Communications Holdings. AT&T has fallen 14% and Verizon is down 10% since the report was published on July 9.

This week, CNN published bits from a letter written by New York Dem. Congressman Pat Ryan to US Telecom, Verizon and AT&T stating, “The fact that telecommunications companies knew that there were lead-covered cables left abandoned in communities, and did not proactively work to mitigate the impacts of the cables is unacceptable.”

Such calls for the companies to “clean up their mess,” have prompted telcos to conduct internal investigations and make public reports on the lead-covered cables in each of their networks.

Earlier this week AT&T said it estimates the contamination spans less than 10% of its copper footprint. But that percentage still represents roughly 200,000 miles of network cable -- and the carrier said “the overwhelming majority of which remains in active service.”

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), Below the Blue and Clean Water Action submitted a letter to the EPA calling on the agency to investigate the uncontrolled release of lead by the cables. The groups claim that more than 300 of these cables are posing a threat to community drinking water sources.

TDS Telecom also disclosed it found approximately 10 miles of lead-covered cables across its network, and said it’s “identifying next steps to address the very limited amount of lead cabling it estimates is in its network. TDS Telecom strives to follow all applicable local, state and federal laws where it provides service.”

Even companies without copper in their networks have felt it necessary to conduct assessments following the controversy. For example, Shentel Telecommunications Company in Kentucky filed this week with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to confirm that no lead-covered cables are deployed in their network, even though their network uses a mix of hybrid fiber coax and FTTH.

New Street Research estimated that the total cost of remediation for Verizon would be $4.1 billion if all 81,000 miles of lead-clad copper needed to be replaced with fiber. If just cabling that is aerial or underwater is replaced, that number would be more than halved ($1.7 billion).

The firm estimated AT&T’s remediation costs as high as $6.8 billion, although predictions have varied widely across the industry (Raymond James analysts estimated between $264 million and $1.2 billion, but also guessed it could cost AT&T roughly $84 million a year in a 15 to 25-year process, CNN noted).

However, New Street Research said that since making remediation predictions for AT&T earlier this week, arguments have been made to leave buried cables in place, which could bring costs down significantly.

“In our earlier work, we assumed that the copper that was removed would have to be replaced with fiber, because AT&T had stated that most of their lead-clad copper cable was still in use,” the research firm wrote in a recent note. “We learned subsequently from industry contacts that most routes with lead-clad copper will have redundant copper cables that aren’t lead clad that can carry the traffic from cables that are removed.”

According to the firm, Verizon has not confirmed if they similarly have redundant cables.