Copper is often overlooked when compared to other metals. However, due to its conductive capabilities, it has been a long-time friend and partner to the evolution of human communication. As we are advancing towards its retirement in the Telecom industry, I decided to look into this very useful metal throughout history. My search revealed a captivating tale about this natural resource’s involvement in our human interactions. I was even able to identify some personal connections to the history of copper use in various industries.One of the first known corporations was a copper mining company. The oldest known stock certificate is a document dated 1288 documenting the holder’s one-eighth ownership of the Stora Kopparberg (great copper mountain) in Falun, Sweden. That company still exists and, with a slight name change, currently trades on the Helsinki and Stockholm stock exchanges. It is generally considered to be the oldest corporation traded on any stock exchange in the world.
Copper’s First Retirement Party
I have traced my Swedish ancestors to find many soldiers, many who may have been paid with copper bricks, but found no miners. Starting in 1607, Sweden created a copper-based currency that was based on the value of the metal and the weight of the coin or piece. These currency pieces became quite heavy. The 10 Riksdolar “coin” was really a block of copper that weighed 44 pounds. This currency was pretty impractical for exchange at the local markets.
To make the currency more practical, King Carl XII’s trusted advisor, Baron Georg von Görtz, devised a “reserve” system, where the king would store the copper bricks in his treasury vault. Smaller coins representing the larger blocks circulated which the holder could exchange for the blocks of copper. With this new flexible medium of exchange, the money that the Swedish soldiers made helped the economy boom, and Sweden became one of the most affluent countries in Europe.
In order to maintain the pace of empire-building, the king borrowed some of the treasury copper to mint new coins to pay his troops. When word got out that the reserves that backed the coins was not all there, the coins were debased to only the value of the copper in the coin, and many people’s savings were lost. So in 1719, Sweden retired its copper based currency. This is the first known example of copper retirement in history. In March of 1719 the Swedish government beheaded Baron von Görtz for creating the copper currency and reserve system, which pleased many of the angry people who lost their savings.
First Signs of Copper’s Feeble Feud with Fiber
My copper miner connections came from Ireland. A genealogist from my family’s hometown told me that “a lot of people from our area went to Butte,” which is where my grandmother’s uncles ended up.
The ground under Butte, Montana was called “the richest hill on Earth.” Demand for copper boomed with the development of the telegraph, electric lights and the telephone, and the mines of Butte boomed with it. Over the next 150 years, copper wires were strung around the world and under the seas enabling worldwide communications and delivery of electric power for modern life.
The early mines in Butte were primarily underground. The copper mines were consolidated into Anaconda Copper, which became one of the largest mining companies in the world. In 1955, they followed the lead at Falun, and converted the underground mines into an open pit mine. The project displaced my uncles’ homes as the big pit grew.
As Anaconda Copper grew, they established a new headquarters in a shiny new skyscraper in Denver named the Anaconda Tower. Anaconda was acquired in 1977 and eventually moved out of their Denver offices. The building space began to be taken up by a fiber-optic network construction company planning to build a national fiber network which adopted the name Qwest after one of its acquisitions. In 1997, the Anaconda Tower was renamed to Qwest Tower. So we might say this was an early sign of the future copper to fiber technology transition as the copper company name was retired from the building.
More Practical Nemeses
According to the International Copper Alliance (ICA), the largest uses of copper today are:
1. Building wiring
3. Automotive applications
4. Telecommunications, which dropped from second place in 10 years.
5. Electric utilities
The ICA noted that the drop in market position of telecom usage was due to technological developments that allowed greater throughput through copper and avoiding addition of more copper facilities. Throughput technologies such as multiplexing and various forms of DSL were being used to make better use of the capacity in copper wires and, according to the ICA, helping to reduce copper demand long before optical fiber was seen as a replacement. Today, technological advances in copper transmission technologies, like vectoring, G.fast, G.shdsl, copper bonding, QPSK, phantom channels, and other new advances emerging from the technology labs, are helping to push more data to end user premises over copper wires.
Events like the First Gulf War and Superstorm Sandy have created situations where it became impractical to replace copper infrastructure that was destroyed. Instead it was faster and more cost effective to bypass the damaged copper with wireless and fiber. On a smaller scale, replacing damaged and stolen copper wire in the outside plant has resulted in fewer outages and faster restoration. The lack of copper is less tempting, potentially improving network reliability.
A Symbiotic Future in Sight?
Copper retirements in the telecom industry have become more common. In some cases, there are end-to-end replacements with fiber to the home, to the business and to the tower. In many more cases, there are replacements of the copper feeder cables between the central office and a neighborhood distribution box where the individual end user premise wires are aggregated. In these locations, fiber to copper conversion equipment is installed in a cabinet, often including DSL gear to provide broadband to the neighborhood. This allows for shorter distances to deliver higher bandwidth to end users over copper. Competitors’ DSL equipment collocated in ILEC central offices cannot transport their signal over these facilities, so the copper retirement projects eliminate the availability of copper UNEs and inhibit competition.
We reviewed the ILECs’ copper retirement notices filed with the FCC over a recent 12-month period.
They consisted of a mix of projects to replace feeder cables just to the neighborhood nodes, replace wires and cables with fiber all the way to end users premises in specific areas, and replace wires and cables with fiber to all end users served by a wire center that may cover a whole city or town.
The way people use their communications technology is changing. The availability of copper connections is declining, and other options have emerged and are developing. The cable industry is expanding broadband options for business and homes, fixed wireless and mobile broadband options are growing, and fiber from competitive LECs is expanding.
The telecom industry was built on the magical qualities of copper to conduct signals. The future will be a portfolio of old and new technologies to connect end users with the bandwidth needed to meet their applications.
We will continue to be inspired by how carriers, business, and consumers adapt and implement new technologies. We are looking into several major trends in technology transition which we will explore in future blog posts, including:
- Copper to Fiber
- Wired to Wireless
- Channelized to Packetized
- Physical to Virtual
- Hardware Defined to Software Defined.
With increased deployment of fiber and wireless technologies as last-mile solutions, many people predict that the telecom industry is leaving the copper age. We believe copper will continue to be a very strong component of a well-designed network portfolio in the future just as it has the past.