Allowing two of the major – sometimes only – sources of inter-city dark fiber to merge would be anti-competitive and illegal, according to the federal justice department. So in order to gain approval to buy Level 3 Communications, CenturyLink agreed to a settlement that requires it to give up control of 24 strands of dark fiber between 30 pairs of cities, including five key California routes.
The settlement also requires CenturyLink to divest overlapping metro fiber systems in Albuquerque, Boise and Tucson.
The fiber will be leased for up to 35 years to a single company that “has the intent and capability (including the necessary managerial, operational, technical, and financial capability) of competing effectively in the sale of Dark Fiber [leases] to end users”. The transaction, and compliance with detailed instructions on how it’ll be carried out (links below), will be overseen by an independent trustee.
The lines in (and out of) California to be sold are:
- Los Angeles to Las Vegas
- Sacramento to Salt Lake City
- Sacramento to San Francisco
- San Diego to Phoenix
- San Francisco to Los Angeles
The routes between San Francisco and LA, and from San Francisco to Sacramento and on to Salt Lake City generally follow railroad right of ways. Just a quick glance at the track confirms that the fiber buried there belongs to AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and Level 3. It’s a critical bottleneck for anyone trying to enter the retail broadband market along those corridors.
Taking Level 3 out of the mix would leave it all in the hands of companies with a legacy, Bell-centric telephone business model that maximises profit by restricting wholesale supply and selling what’s left at retail rates. Which pretty much kills any hope of broadband competition at modern service levels.
The best solution would have been to nix the deal, and keep Level 3 as the only heavyweight independent operator in the dark fiber business. The agreement that federal anti-trust lawyers reached with CenturyLink is a reasoned, if less satisfactory, alternative.
The California Public Utilities Commission and the Federal Communications Commission still have to bless the deal. The settlement reached by the federal justice department will go a long way toward greasing the skids at both agencies.