By the end of 2025, AT&T hopes to have installed fibre broadband in 30 million locations by the end of 2025. However, if comments made by COO Jeff McElfresh are to be believed, its ultimate objective may be much higher.
At an investor conference this week, McElfresh stated that despite a shaky economic climate, demand for fibre is still high and its rollout is still generating the optimum levels of return. The 30 million target it sent in May 2021, he continued is “not the entirety of what I think the market opportunity is there.”
“We’re going to be on this journey for a while. I mean we think there’s 50 million homes, urban, suburban in America that deserve fiber,” McElfresh stated. “We’re playing a long game. We’re not sitting here looking at just this year or next year.”
Although it’s unclear exactly how AT&T intends to reach those additional 20 million homes, there are a few likely options.
First, through a joint venture with private equity firm BlackRock Alternatives, the operator recently announced plans to bring fibre to an additional 1.5 million locations outside of its ILEC footprint. According to AT&T CEO John Stankey, if the joint venture can successfully validate its business model, the number of deaths could rise.
In addition, McElfresh reiterated the operator’s prior interest in grant funding and cited the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) Program as an additional route for growth past its target.
He said, “BEAD gives you the chance to probably fill in areas that economically you might not have had high on the priority list. That includes regions that are part of its old copper footprint.
According to AT&T, it plans to retire 50% of its copper infrastructure by 2025 and reinvest the money saved on network maintenance in more fibre.
“If you think about the actual carrying cost of an underutilized copper network that is across 511,000 square miles – think about all the access circuits, you think about all the maintenance and support, you think about all the energy that we use – we are in the early innings of that wireline transformation,” McElfresh said. “And so over the next two to three years, you will see us draw costs out of this part of our franchise, reinvest them into the future of the company, and it should be a nice virtuous cycle of great returns for investors.”
It won’t likely be until next year that BEAD funding starts to flow seriously from the states to operators. However, AT&T is also looking into regional and local grant opportunities in the interim. The operator has already identified well over $1 billion in lucrative grant opportunities, but AT&T executives previously told Fierce that there was no cap on the amount of funding it might pursue.