U.S. businesses' burgeoning demand for data and video is fueling a revival in fiber optic services, an industry once decimated by overbuilding during the dotcom era.
The recovery is leading to a number of acquisitions as the largest telecom companies duke it out with cable operators and telecom providers such as Level 3 Communications Inc to serve corporate customers.
Companies like Level 3 have been successful in shifting their focus to the industry's sweet spot - the "last mile" of fiber which is typically the most expensive to develop. They connect business clients to larger networks, allowing data and Internet traffic to be transmitted at ultra-fast speeds through thin filaments of glass.
Level 3, a Colorado-based company which narrowly avoided bankruptcy in the early 2000s, put an exclamation point on its long climb back from near death with the $5.65 billion acquisition last week of tw telecom Inc - a merger which will connect 35,000 commercial buildings nationwide to its fiber network. Analysts expect Level 3 to report an annual profit this year for the first time in 16 years.
The acquisition of tw telecom, a joint venture between US West and Time Warner founded in 1993, wasn't the first such fiber oriented deal and won't be the last, analysts and industry bankers said.
The market for corporate customers' voice and data services has been estimated by analysts to be worth anywhere from $57 billion to $100 billion in revenue per year.
"There's an unstoppable demand for bandwidth so that's behind this and there's been a lot of consolidation. It's a business that works on scale," said IDC analyst Mark Winther.
Fiber network provider Zayo, a company that Reuters previously reported is pursuing an initial public offering, says it has bought 25 companies – including AboveNet in 2012 for $2.2 billion - since it was founded in 2007, according to its website.
And Zach Nebergall, the vice president of Dark Fiber Strategic Product Group at Zayo said he expects Zayo to keep acquiring companies as long as they aren't overpriced.
Among other private companies, Fibertech, owned by Court Square Capital, could be a candidate for sale, industry bankers said. Lightower, which buyout shop Berkshire Partners bought in 2012, is another sale or IPO candidate, the people said.
Representatives from Court Square Capital, which owns Fibertech, and Berkshire Capital, which owns Lightower declined to comment on their exit plans, while Zayo declined to comment on IPO plans.
Cable and telecom companies could also become bigger buyers for fiber assets. Time Warner Cable spent $600 million in cash on DukeNet, a regional fiber optic network in the Carolinas co-owned by Duke Energy in October.
Winther said so-called enterprise clients, which are the biggest corporate customers and include everything from financial institutions to hospitals, are tough negotiators on price, so the way providers can maintain margins is by getting bigger.
Sunit Patel, chief financial officer of Level 3, said it could cost between roughly $50,000 to $150,000 to connect a large client, with the investment paid off quickly - within six months to two years, depending on the length of the contract.
"We essentially have transformed from being a largely wholesale player 10-15 years ago to one that is predominately an enterprise player today. All of the growth is coming from enterprise customers," Patel said in an interview.
Demand for fiber services wasn't always so strong. In the early 2000s, the industry was in turmoil, with a glut of fiber being built across the U.S. Before its collapse amid an accounting scandal, Enron Corp dabbled in fiber routes, while WorldCom was losing money on its fiber networks before its top executives committed fraud and the company went bankrupt.
Prices for fiber-optic cable plummeted, a big chunk of what had been a plethora of start-ups went under and miles of fiber networks built to carry Internet traffic over long distances lay fallow, or dark.
Level 3 struggled during the downturn but got a cash infusion of $500 million in 2002 from investors including Warren Buffett. In the decade that followed, Level 3 consolidated at a rapid clip and picked off the remains of the most desirable U.S. fiber networks. Global Crossing, a telecom company once worth billions, went bankrupt and was later acquired by Level 3 in 2011. Level 3 now has a market value of $10.5 billion, compared to about $1 billion in 2001.
The fastest growing area of the market is in local fiber routes that connect directly to buildings, in stark contrast to the long haul routes that were built out during the telecom boom more than a decade ago.
Constructing fiber routes to the "last mile" to local buildings and offices is very expensive because in densely populated areas, companies have to get permits and often have to be built underground around electricity and gas lines. The companies that drove the boom about 15 years ago ran out of money before they could build out these local routes, said D.A. Davidson & Co telecom analyst Donna Jaegers. Now, fiber networks in cities are in demand and their services sell for a premium.
Market leaders in the local fiber space are AT&T, Verizon and CenturyLink, which have a combined 60 percent market share of the business enterprise market, Jaegers said. Cable companies have about 10-12 percent while Level 3 had 4.5-5 percent and tw telecom 2-3 percent, Jaegars added.
The threat from cable companies provides another reason for smaller players to consolidate. Comcast, which is focused on wiring up small businesses, has been rounding out its fiber networks and plans to expand aggressively after its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable is approved by regulators.
Telecom companies also got more strategic about where they were installing fiber. Nebergall, the Zayo executive who also worked at Level 3, said the mantra 12 or 15 years ago was "if you built it, they will come." Now that's changed.
"There's a known set of demand for locations to which we're building so it's not like we're putting fiber in the ground and hoping that there will be demand," he said.
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker; Editing by Christian Plumb and Martin Howell)