Verizon buys enough fiber to reach Mars, sorta


Make it quick.

Verizon is pumping up the volume about its three year deal with Corning to spend $1.05 billion on “fiber optic cable and associated hardware”. It even got a congratulatory (and self-congratulatory) press release from Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai. As it should It’s a big commitment and will add a considerable amount of potential bandwidth to the U.S. supply.

Verizon also claims that it will be buying “up to” 20 million kilometers (12.4 million miles, it helpfully adds) of “optical fiber” each year, from 2018 through 2020. That’s enough optical fiber to wrap around the Earth almost 1,500 times. It could circle the Sun almost 100 times. It’s even enough optical fiber to build a middle mile line from Earth to Mars. Until it snaps off a few minutes after closest approach, anyway.

It is truly a big deal, but not as big a deal as a quick glance might lead you to believe. Verizon is careful to distinguish between “optical fiber”, which is a strand of glass, and “fiber optic cable”, which is a bundle of optical fibers. Cables come in many sizes, but 432-strands are typical for mobile carriers these days. Cables with 864 strands are not unheard of, and 288 is probably as small as you’re likely to see from them (granted, there are unlikely builds out there). But let’s say 432 strands.

That implies a build of 29,000 miles a year, or 87,000 miles total. At a total cost of $1.05 billion and allowing a bit for “associated hardware”, that comes to somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 a foot, which is in the volume discount ballpark for 432-strand cable. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but in round numbers it looks like Verizon is planning to build something like 80,000 to 100,000 miles of fiber plant over the next three years.

That’s a lot of backhaul, and a lot of cell sites.