AT&T has perhaps 15 million lines in rural areas that company management might have preferred to sell, but the company apparently cannot find buyers. So AT&T now is considering a plan to upgrade those lines, Bloomberg reports.

In a possibly-significant move, AT&T apparently is looking at ways to upgrade the all-copper lines without installing new optical fiber in the transport portions of the access network, using IP Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexers.

If the economics are as good as AT&T believes they are, lots of other rural telcos might find they can boost broadband access speeds without deploying new “fiber-reinforced” networks.

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Two decades ago, before mobility became the growth engine for the global telecom industry, it might have seemed inevitable that fiber “to where you can make money” was the future. These days, the problem is that the “fiber to where you can make money” equation has changed for the worse.

If AT&T can figure out how to upgrade all-copper lines using only new DSLAMs, that would be a major innovation, as the business case for U-verse or fiber to the home in its rural areas is beyond challenging.

Consider that wireless now contributes about 52 percent of total U.S. service provider revenues, and will grow to represent about 61 percent of total revenues by 2016, Insight Research estimates.

That will make it harder for any telco to justify the payback from an aggressive fiber upgrade. In fact, some observers believe that telco fixed network operations will be challenged just to maintain current levels of revenue.

The total U.S. telecom wireline market reached $162.9 billion in revenue at the end of 2011, and will essentially remain flat, reaching $167.9 billion by the end of 2016, representing a negligible compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 0.6 percent over the forecast period, Insight Research reports.

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