The so-called last mile is once again telecom's final frontier.
Like the wireless Internet and the digital subscriber line before it, a trend called fiber to the premises has Wall Street aglow with possibility.
Investors love it. Consumers might even go for it. Now if only regulators would see things their way,
and its peers could lift a tattered sector back to respectability as they upgrade their customers' homes to fiber optic connections.
So goes the drumbeat behind the Baby Bells' latest march on Washington. Offering up another argument for their exclusive control of their networks, Verizon and its peers
are promising a broadband revolution via fiber to the premises, or FTTP.
New York phone giant Verizon turned up the pressure Monday, naming four more suppliers for its FTTP rollout. Prospective vendors like networking gearmaker
jumped 4% on the news.
Still, some observers remained unimpressed by the Bells' professed rush to dig up consumers' rosebushes. They say the big telcos are, as in their recent advocacy of voice over Internet phone service, using their clout with Wall Street to make things happen on the regulatory front. And they doubt that Verizon and its rivals will move as quickly as they claim to give consumers the benefit of these advanced services.
"There are clues that make this whole thing iffy," says Blaylock & Partners analyst Gabe Lowy. Verizon slipped 7 cents to $34.08.
Investors have embraced few themes this year as tightly as FTTP. Shares of big fiber cable supplier
, for example, have risen threefold this year, and network gearmaker
Advanced Fiber Communications
has more than doubled. The run-up has come as Wall Street dubbed these outfits the likely beneficiaries of an impending fiber boom.
But what the Street sees as a sure bet, some see as a long shot at best.
Seems while Verizon's support for FTTP has been uncharacteristically high-profile, its actual financing of the plan is less solid, say skeptics. One hint that there's far more posturing than equipment ordering going on is that Verizon has named each of the suppliers it intends to use -- while failing to specify contracts, time frames or budget estimates.
In contrast, "The Bells have never been known to make public contract announcements, especially with vendors whose gear hasn't been field trialed," Lowy says. Earlier this month, Lowy issued a report calling FTTP more hype than reality.
Verizon concedes it is being loud about FTTP, but disputes the hype charge. The company says it plans to string fiber to a million customers in nine states next year.
By Lowy's estimates, though, it would cost the Bells about $2,000 per house to replace their standard copper wire connections with fiber. Assuming about a third of those customers signed on for phone and Internet services, it would take outfits like Verizon as much as eight years to recoup its investments.
"This is a new and very important business to us," says a company representative. The Bells say they want hard and fast rules, not just assurances that they will have exclusive access to the advanced networks they build.
And the fact that Verizon is dangling potentially juicy broadband supply contracts over an order-starved industry helps increase the leverage the Bells have over federal regulators, say industry observers. In June, regulators said that the Bells will not have to share their upgraded networks with competitors. But the
final terms of that ruling are still being debated.
Regulators like the Federal Communications Commission must balance the presumed economic benefits of broadband expansion in the mass market with the protections due phone companies that invest in new networks and services.
The FCC spent the better part of the past decade loosening the Bells' monopolist grip on their local phone networks. So now, the prospect of handing those same companies another shot at a monopoly, only this time in the advanced digital services, is likely to be contentious.
The bulls say the industry is moving toward fiber, and as an investor, you just have to put down your money and hang on for a rough ride.
"In order to win you have to close your eyes, buy some exposure to the players now and patiently follow the progress because real earnings will be realized in this area in years, not quarters, from now," says one Connecticut money manager who asked not to be named.
But those who are considerably less bullish say the progress may be best measured in decades.