Scrapping The Local Loop, By The Numbers

A few years back I wrote an “Ask Hackaday” article inviting speculation on the future of the physical plant of landline telephone companies. It started innocently enough; an open telco cabinet spotted during my morning walk gave me a glimpse into the complexity of the network buried beneath my feet and strung along poles around town. That in turn begged the question of what to do with all that wire, now that wireless communications have made landline phones so déclassé.

At the time, I had a sneaking suspicion that I knew what the answer would be, but I spent a good bit of virtual ink trying to convince myself that there was still some constructive purpose for the network. After all, hundreds of thousands of technicians and engineers spent lifetimes building, maintaining, and improving these networks; surely there must be a way to repurpose all that infrastructure in a way that pays at least a bit of homage to them. The idea of just ripping out all that wire and scrapping it seemed unpalatable.

With the decreasing need for copper voice and data networks and the increasing demand for infrastructure to power everything from AI data centers to decarbonized transportation, the economic forces arrayed against these carefully constructed networks seem irresistible. But what do the numbers actually look like? Are these artificial copper mines as rich as they appear? Or is the idea of pulling all that copper out of the ground and off the poles and retasking it just a pipe dream?

Phones To Cars

There are a lot of contenders for the title of “Largest Machine Ever Built,” but it’s a pretty safe bet that the public switched telephone network (PSTN) is in the top five. From its earliest days, the PSTN was centered around copper, with each and every subscriber getting at least one pair of copper wires connected from their home or business. These pairs, referred to collectively and somewhat loosely as the “local loop,” were gathered together into increasingly larger bundles on their way to a central office (CO) housing the switchgear needed to connect one copper pair to another. For local calls, it could all be done within the CO or by connecting to a nearby CO over copper lines dedicated to the task; long-distance calls were accomplished by multiplexing calls together, sometimes over microwave links but often over thick coaxial cables.

Fiber optic cables and wireless technologies have played a large part in making all the copper in the local loops and beyond redundant, but the fact remains that something like 800,000 metric tons of copper is currently locked up in the PSTN. And judging by the anti-theft efforts that Home Depot and other retailers are making, not to mention the increase in copper thefts from construction sites and other soft targets, that material is incredibly valuable. Current estimates are that PSTNs are sitting on something like $7 billion worth of copper.

That sure sounds like a lot, but what does it really mean? Assuming that the goal of harvesting all that largely redundant PSTN copper is to support decarbonization, $7 billion worth of copper isn’t really that much. Take EVs for example. The typical EV on the road today has about 132 pounds (60 kg) of copper, or about 2.5 times the amount in the typical ICE vehicle. Most of that copper is locked up in motor windings, but there’s a lot in the bus bars and wires needed to connect the batteries to the motors, plus all the wires needed to connect all the data systems, sensors, and accessories. If you pulled all the copper out of the PSTN and used it to do nothing but build new EVs, you’d be able to build about 13.3 million cars. That’s a lot, but considering that 80 million cars were put on the road globally in 2021, it wouldn’t have that much of an impact.

Farming the Wind

What about on the generation side? Thirteen million new EVs are going to need a lot of extra generation and transmission capacity, and with the goal of decarbonization, that probably means a lot of wind power. Wind turbines take a lot of copper; currently, bringing a megawatt of on-shore wind capacity online takes about 3 metric tons of copper. A lot of that goes into the windings in the generator, but that also takes into account the wire needed to get the power from the nacelle down to the ground, plus the wires needed to connect the turbines together and the transformers and switchgear needed to boost the voltage for transmission. So, if all of the 800,000 metric tons of copper currently locked up in the PSTN were recycled into wind turbines, they’d bring a total of 267,000 megawatts of capacity online.

To put that into perspective, the total power capacity in the United States is about 1.6 million megawatts, so converting the PSTN to wind turbines would increase US grid capacity by about 16% — assuming no losses, of course. Not too shabby; that’s over ten times the capacity of the world’s largest wind farm, the Gansu Wind Farm in the Gobi Desert in China.

There’s one more way to look at the problem, one that I think puts a fine point of things. It’s estimated that to reach global decarbonization goals, in the next 25 years we’ll need to mine at least twice the amount of copper that has ever been mined in human history. That’s quite a lot; we’ve taken 700 million metric tons of copper in the last 11,000 years. Doubling that means we’ve got to come up with 1.4 billion metric tons in the next quarter century. The 800,000 metric tons of obsolete PSTN copper is therefore only about 0.05% of what’s needed — not even a drop in the bucket.

Accepting the Inevitable

These are just a few examples of what could be done with the “Buried Fortune” of PSTN copper, as Bloomberg somewhat breathlessly refers to it in the article linked above. It goes without saying that this is just back-of-the-envelope math, and that a real analysis of what it would take to recycle the old PSTN copper and what the results would be would require a lot more engineering and financial chops than I have. Even if it is just a drop in the bucket, I think we’ll probably end up doing it, if for no other reason than it takes something like two decades to bring a new copper mine into production. Until those mines come online and drive the price of copper down, all that refined and (relatively) easily recycled copper just sitting there is a tempting target for investors. So it’ll probably happen, which is sad in a way, but maybe it’s a more fitting end to the PSTN than just letting it sit there and corrode.

57 thoughts on “Scrapping The Local Loop, By The Numbers

  1. I’m thinking 7 billion dollars isn’t even *close* to the cost of recovering all that wire from where it is. It’s not like it’s in convenient ingots in big vaults. It’s in fine wires spread out all over the planet.

      1. Great plan… An army of meth heads, armed with crow bars and side-cutters, prying open “abandoned” wire vaults and junction boxes to chop and pull out the wires inside.

        What could possibly go wrong?

        1. Realistically it would be sent out to licensed and insured contractors and excavators to rip it up and throw it in the landfill. Wasting a valuable resource. They could mandate recycling the copper. It’s hard to say since it’s never really been done before.

      2. Optimistically, that wire is 20 feet in the air on a pole.

        Realistically, it’s miles and miles of buried wire, passing underneath roads and sidewalks and mixed in with still-needed fiber.

          1. Power lines are usually steel cored aluminium these days. Old stuff might be copper. I would assume data lines are copper too.
            Aluminium is used to save both weight and cost. 2x the resistance but 1/3rd the weight. The steel core gives it a higher tensile strength too.

            When you’re bundling large numbers of conductors, I imaging you’d want to optimise to size, not mass, so copper would be better than aluminium.

          2. Overhead wires that are aluminium are for the power network not for the Telecom Network. I used to work for the Telecom industry so trust me. The local loop facilities on telephone pills and underground is very thin copper wire bundles each wire being about 26 gauge covered in plastic. It would not make sense economically to try to pull all of that wire out and then strip the plastic off of it. It’s a resource but the cost to recycle it is so high that it’s better to abandon it in place.

        1. In rural area, those wires that are buried has no conduit, just naked plastic coated copper. Pulling them out would be hard as you’d be pulling against ton of earth on top. My parent’s land line are buried like this, all the way to local exchange box.

          1. Yeah, because someone had to make a cost analysis when burying it and realized that throwing the baked plastic coated copper into the hole was easier.

    1. There’s well over a kilobuck in scrap value of copper hanging from poles in my city block alone. People are already cutting live 480 V cable to steal the stuff: 5 minutes work can get you $100 of copper. The miscreants are savvy enough to know the aluminum and copper-clad steel, and just Sawzall the copper portions.

      So, just declare open season on the hanging copper, and the free market will take care of it. (And bring down civilization as we know it in the process, I know.)

      1. Everyone talks overhead wires but does anyone look up? Does anyone look up the current market price for scrap insulated copper wire? I hear a lot of opinions and a fair amount of some sort of panic, but let’s break it down.

        There exists a scrap market for copper because it is profitable.
        Insulated copper wire has a scrap value. As of today that value is ~USD1.25/lb. There is negligible materials cost when you’re selling stolen copper and cost of recovery only kicks in after the copper is sold and is not the original seller’s problem, he has profited and no longer figures in the story.

        Naysay all you want but *everyone* makes a profit or it wouldn’t happen.

        1. Theft (of almost anything) is more profitable than other means of acquiring and selling it. That theft can break even doesn’t imply that any method with more overhead would break even.

          And in general, the theft breaks even ONLY because the thieves rarely have to bear the replacement cost of damages inflicted on the rest of the infrastructure in the process.

          It’s the same reason that a $100,000 car will often get ripped and stripped, netting a total of under $15,000, and leaving substantial disposal costs to be borne by “some other party”.

          To say a thing is “feasible for someone” is a VERY different thing than to say that a thing “can be made a feasible solution in general”.

          1. theft also is really inefficient, monetarily speaking. any commonly stolen good usually has a means to be identified. so you usually get the thing and then sell it to another criminal who finds a way to sell it. scrap it, melt it down, file away the serial number, have smurffs hock it (i worked at a pawn shop and our formula was a quarter of what we could sell it for on ebay) etc. so that hundred thousand dollar car you just stole might be worth a few thousand bucks at the chop shop. a lot of the value of the item is destroyed in the process. even when the item you are stealing isn’t marked, the recycle rate is far lower than the rates for graded copper.

        2. Not everyone.

          During one of my deployments, someone(s) cut my power drop with an axe and stripped my entire house of copper over a weekend.

          They tore up the walls to get it fast.
          The torn up walls couldn’t support the roof, which collapsed a few weeks later during a storm.

          I got home to a pretty awful surprise 3 months later.

          The house had to be torn down.
          Everything inside that couldn’t survive outside, or even submerged, was trash.

          My insurance paid for most of it.
          Not all of it.

          The demo cost me $6k out of pocket.
          I lost another $20k-ish worth of stuff that didn’t get replaced.
          I was also liable for the power bill for those 3 months.
          Cutting the feed with an axe left a short. Not bad enough to panic the power company to come shut it off.
          Bad enough that my bill was $2k.
          For each of the 3 months.

          So no, “everyone” does not profit.

    2. It might not even be worth anything *at all*

      Let’s ignore for a moment the costs of sending out work crews to rip up roads and sidewalks, and tear cables from poles. Best case scenario, it’ll cost just as much to remove as it cost to lay the wire in the first place, an already massive expense that took 80+ years to accomplish in the first place.

      Then you have a massive pile of cable, comprised of thin strands of copper overmolded in a rainbow of different plastics, rubber, kevlar, wrapped steel wire, and god knows what else.

      It’s ewaste, a product notoriously impossible to scrap profitably.

      Your best option for the cable is probably the same as for other electronic waste: shredding, then burning off all the plastics and rubbers and resins to smelt the raw steel and copper in the cables. It’s energy intensive and has the fun byproduct of releasing all kinds of fun (toxic) crap into the atmosphere (plus a boatload of CO2).

      If it costs $10 in recycling labor and resources to recover $3 worth of copper, why would anyone do it? Then add in the labor and construction costs of ripping out all this wiring and trucking it to recycling centers and this becomes a clear exercise in futility.

      Better to just leave the copper alone.

  2. The local crackheads have already started on (still live and in use) leads in my area. I do wonder how much money they get for 3ft of 26gauge 100pr, can’t be enough for a fix

  3. Another thing to look at is that copper (actually bronze) overhead wires are used as a support for fiber put in service in countryside, an I suppose that that bronze it’s useful to power system needed for fiber.

    1. Where on Earth are people using bronze? Around here all the main high voltage stuff is aluminum. Usually right to the residential panel. Copper indoors though. Coax cable is copper-clad aluminum, as is the newer ethernet-style “phone” cable. Only older installations (phone line and 208/240/480/600V low voltage power) used solid copper. Support cables are plain old steel.

    2. Aerial fiber is wrapped around steel support cable. you have to be like 5-10 feet under the power / telco copper on a pole. But i have only designed fiber installs in the mid-eastern USA, most of the abandoned underground copper is going to be scrapped by the local telcos to free up conduit to lease to fiber companies or fill with their own fiber. way cheaper than burying new conduit especially in the cities.

  4. I don’t see the copper going anywhere for the simple fact that we don’t have good or reliable internet outside of major metro areas. I live 45-60 minutes from major metro (I do have 2 50k cities within 25mins) and a half mile from city limits you are doing good to even get cable internet, fiber is a pipe dream. More likely you will be on really crap DSL. Ideally they could aggregate the copper and come up with a hub fiber system that can hang on poles to avoid re-stringing hundreds of miles just in my county. Or as mentioned use the copper to power the fiber repeaters.

    Too bad nobody thought ahead and co-operated when the wires were going in and used an underground you could pull fiber through to avoid digging it all up again. But my neighborhood went up in 1975, so I guess even they weren’t forward thinking enough. I do have Cable, not sure if that went in with thw development or later .

  5. The linked document on mine startup times was really interesting. I never would have thought the US would have one of the shorter startup times at 13 years. I’m surprised.

    Anyway, there are a good number of copper mines sitting around closed off that could make sense to re-open if demand really got that high. As an example, I’m thinking about Copper Hill, TN. The place was important in WWII but faded into obsolescence. The ore just wasn’t that high quality. The last 20 years or so that it was running they just made sulfuric acid from the copper sulfate they were extracting. Even at $4/lb it’s not worth it. At $10/lb? Hmmm…

    I hope the state of refining has improved. The plant used to release sulfur dioxide gas that killed all the vegetation for a few miles. I remember when I was a kid the place looked like Mars.

    1. ” I remember when I was a kid the place looked like Mars”

      Yes…it really did. I live ~50 miles from that area and in the 70’s
      it was devastated(plant life).
      Even for a 10yo it looked like hell.

  6. At the start of the fiber optic mania, the Dutch telecom company developped a technique to reuse the thick coper trunk cables. These were protected by a think outer jacket of steel and tar. By sending large currents through the cable they could melt the innermost tar layer between the wires itself and the jacket, after which the copper wiring could be pulled out. The remaining puter shell could then be used to rub fiber cabling through..

    It turned out to be expensive and it only.worked well by spanning short distances. Digging a trench and stuffi g that full of plastic tubes was way more economic.

    Nowadays it might become viable just to recover the copper wires since copper prives are way up.

  7. Last time you asked, I noted that my local carrier had been running some sort of high speed Internet network over the local loop copper. It wasn’t DSL, but something faster; I don’t have the exact name. Since then they have replaced it with fiber optics. The wires were all on poles in the neighborhood, so it wasn’t that much of a project to switch over.

  8. Even apart from the value of copper itself, I felt like it was unfortunate that we can’t find any purpose for the copper infrastructure abandoned in place once the copper is overbuilt with fiber. We even gave up on having phones that work during a power outage, with that move.

    Even once the signal integrity becomes too poor for DSL, if phone wiring can run a few miles and then power a few phones at audible levels along with their ringers, which are of course a higher voltage, then it seems like it could do something basic. Hopefully, power the ONT and an analog phone. But also, getting power from the regular electrical network requires a meter loop to be installed, so maybe the ISP’s that formerly provided copper services could reclaim that power for themselves in order to power wireless access points that use their new fiber network for data. But that’s just dreaming, of course.

  9. Verizon (bell at the time maybe) tried this when they launched FiOS to recoup some of the cash. It didn’t work. Some places have wooden ducts other the water and dirt is just too much friction. You are required to removed unused copper by the NEC as of 20 or so years ago now.

    1. Although I am no expert in the NEC, it’s my understanding if those parts of the NEC that talk about pulling out copper are referring to copper power wiring, not the very thin 26 gauge copper wiring used by local telephone utilities. The voltage is far less than 120 volts so leaving it in place does not represent a hazard. The most important thing to understand is that the economic impact of pulling out all this very thin low voltage copper wiring is far too high for consumers to bear. That’s my opinion.

  10. Finding a new “use” for the wiring in place would only ever be an art project or a greenwashing stunt. Ripping it out might be profitable in certain places, but for the most part we’re talking about an industrial waste cleanup.

    Which /should/ mean the incumbent telcos are liable for the cost, and also required to do it. If you stop to look at any road, it’s crusted with disused, redundant and/or badly planned hardware, because utilities aren’t responsible for what happens to their stuff after it stops making them money (in most places). If you make them responsible for the whole lifecycle, you’d be surprised how much better they can do.

    It’s a form of pollution that we really train ourselves to tune out:

      1. Everybody is a consumer. Stuff left behind has effects. Whether the costs of those effects are remediation bonds paid in advance, or removal expenses paid either by the owner of the equipment or the landowner, the expenses get to the consumer eventually. That’s just reality.

        In the case of buried phone wires, I doubt that pollution is a problem: let it sit if it’s not economically feasible to recover it. Wires strung from poles will eventually break and may be a safety hazard, but they’re not that hard to remove. The power company has to maintain poles and their wires anyway; the additional cost of removing abandoned telco wire is small in comparison.

      2. Let’s reduce a company’s costs by shouldering their responsibilities ourselves so they reduce their prices; that’s always worked before! /s But seriously, at some point companies show they are just picking the price that makes for maximum profit and is brushing up against being high enough that customers can no longer afford it and quit buying. If we can’t afford to do basic stuff for actual citizens, we definitely can’t afford putting publicly traded global companies on welfare and life support.

        In this specific case, we have a lot of different kinds of funding to provide connectivity to people who’d otherwise not have it or not be able to afford it, so on the whole I wouldn’t say telecom is getting the short end of the stick at all, even if we did decide to require them to cover removing the wires once they’re a problem. Which doesn’t sound hard as long as there’s no rush. Keeping them up is more effort, if it’s aerial. Maybe abandoning the buried stuff in place would be an argument, but not even that if they want to reuse the duct. *shrug*

  11. “That’s quite a lot; we’ve taken 700 million metric tons of copper in the last 11,000 years”… Have we been mining for 11,000 years or is this a typo?

  12. “AI data centers”
    I cannot come up with a more useless use for copper.

    “decarbonized transportation”

    No such thing exist.
    Carbon is part of the materials these forms of transportation are made of (steel, plastic, composites, leather, silicon carbide, etc.).
    Carbon is emitted by EVs directly in the form of particulates.
    Many parts use fossil fuels during production and many off them are made from fossil fuels.
    If you are talking about Carbon dioxide emissions, these forms of transportation are powered by fossil fuels indirectly. Unless you are using creative bookkeeping and don’t count CO2 emissions that are bought using certificates.

    “So, if all of the 800,000 metric tons of copper currently locked up in the PSTN were recycled into wind turbines, they’d bring a total of 267,000 megawatts of capacity online [except when the wind is not blowing or blowing too hard]”
    The copper will be recycled once it becomes economically attractive and then it will be sold at market rate.
    Since it takes time to do this it will be slowly added to the market and it will only drop the price slightly (or the price will increase slower).
    Or it will be sold above market rate if companies are willing to pay more for recycled copper. Then it won’t drop the price.
    The notion the government can determine we need to use all of it for one purpose is called communism.

    1. Decarbonized transportation is actually available right now today, for anybody who has the intellect to crunch some numbers. It all gets down to priorities and economic willpower. You know all those e-bikes and little stand-up scooters that everybody jets around on in many urban centers? Just one or two solar panels is all one needs, along with some associated hardware, like voltage inverters. The cost of going green to facilitate charging those e-bikes with clean, affordable, green energy would be well under $1,000 per person. Do the math.

      1. They can’t do math, it would get in the way of trolling.
        That said, unless I am misunderstanding you, you are accusing people of lacking intellect for not doing something insane. Do you really mean that everyone should give up their job, their home, and any pleasures or parts of their desired way of life that aren’t compatible with using an electric scooter as their main form of transportation? Because even if we were in a dystopia where that was the kind of thing we could ever ask, it wouldn’t even work. If we all lived in stacks of little gray boxes in order to cram the whole population into small enough areas that you could get around on a scooter, nobody would be out there securing resources like the food, materials, and energy it takes to support that kind of unsustainably population-dense lifestyle.

      2. False. If you power/charge all trains, EVs, e-bikes and e-scooters with solar energy then it won’t have significant emissions). Correct. But they use the same electric grid, which globally is mostly fossil fuel. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying it doesn’t exist YET. I’m all for a 100% nuclear grid and use surplus energy for creating e-fuels, urban heating and desalinization of water.
        For example those rental E-scooters are picked up by fossil fuel powered vans and then charged with the regular grid overnight (when the sun doesn’t shine, so no solar power) and then put back in the morning. I’m sure they emit less CO2, but that’s not the point you are making.
        Regular bicycles are 0 emission during use (not during production) as we need to exercise anyway for our health so there is no additional Carbon dioxide emissions from cycling. But cycling doesn’t replace all use cases of cars.

        1. Some people have the ability to buy their grid power from a specific provider or a specific source, which can be solar, although I’m not one and can’t say whether they can ensure they don’t charge when that’s not producing. Plenty of people have no choice but happen to have hydro power, and some have nuclear of course. For those people, the power they’re consuming seems like it should count as zero-carbon with the biggest counterargument being that if they hadn’t used the power it may have been transferred through the grid to somewhere else to reduce the use of coal/gas. The global grid mix doesn’t seem relevant either; even under the above criteria, only whichever grid the transportation in question is powered from matters. And if it’s charged only by off-grid power, then not even that matters.

          That being said, it doesn’t have to be zero in the way the term was used in the article. Even just producing *less* carbon dioxide is part of decarbonization, the process. So linguistically, transportation that has had the process of decarbonization applied to it is transportation that has been decarbonized, even if it’s not carbon-free or carbon-neutral or net-zero or any of the actual eventual goals. (And yes, of course it’s carbon dioxide that is in question, for all that we don’t bother to say so every time.)

          Any implication that as a general rule electric vehicles should not be lower-carbon than ICE vehicles is fairly quick to disprove with math. Usually, even charging from a coal plant would be a more efficient use of fuel than in a typical car engine with constantly changing load and the need to idle. And most of the carbon involved in a car’s life is in its fuel and not its production, though that’s not insignificant.

          1. “the biggest counterargument being that if they hadn’t used the power it may have been transferred through the grid to somewhere else to reduce the use of coal/gas”

            I agree. It seems like we are on the same page. We share one atmosphere so only the sum of emissions counts in the end. CO₂ certificates only slightly work in reducing the total emissions. It’s also one reason why modernizing existing gas power plants and increasing their efficiency saves more CO2 per dollar and also earns back its investment. That’s the lowest hanging fruit. Might as well invest in making existing emissions in poor countries a lot better, than making the ones in rich countries slightly better. But that’s not how politics works.

            “That being said, it doesn’t have to be zero in the way the term was used in the article.”
            Fully agree. It reminds me of the saying “the best is the enemy of the better”. By seeking perfection you sometimes achieve less then by seeking reasonable improvements. Everything in life is a tradeoff and has diminishing returns and that’s something engineers and politicians should know.

            “And yes, of course it’s carbon dioxide that is in question”
            I admit I’m being a bit of a smart ass. But I think that a tech site should write “CO₂” instead of “carbon”.

          2. Well, saving fuel while using it the same way is helpful, so I’m happy when improvements are made in that area. But if we’re trying to clean up the grid so that we can use it to deliver all the needed energy without the currently associated emissions, then there’s another part besides just building new electricity production and wiring it up. There’s also the years of gradually switching from equipment and devices and processes that can’t run on electricity to those that can. While we need to stay within our available supply to keep things running, we also need to keep making and putting in place new things that run on electricity. We want to prioritize the ones that save money or co2 or both versus what they replace, but it needs to get done and we can’t just plan on changing them all out at once in some future year.

  13. The labor costs of pulling local loop wiring out would be cost prohibitive. I am not an advocate for copper wire theft but that is specifically why copper wire thieves look for thicker heavier gauge wire when they steal it. The copper wire inside local loop is usually around 26 gauge. Perhaps not all of it maybe some of it is larger gauge but as far as I know it’s lots and lots of bundles of very fine wire. So, not only is there the cost of physically removing it from telephone poles and underground faults but there’s also the cost of getting all the plastic off of it. I suppose if it was done using some kind of robotics instead of humans it could be cost-effective. But my opinion is it’s cheaper just to leave that stuff in place instead of trying to pull it all out.

    1. One day we will genetically engineer microbes that will consume the copper, and harvest them at the end of the cable. They will be designed to not stray from the wire they are consuming. Once the copper is removed the vacant space remaining will allow the cable to collapse enough for easy pullout.

      1. Oh wait, some cockroaches have the ability to eat and digest plastic.
        Have them bred to be small enough to fit between the conductors of a trunk line so when they pop out other end the remaining copper can be easily pulled out!

    1. Because that is not their goal. Their goal is to get praise, funding, votes, a good feeling, power etc. If their goal was to reduce global CO₂ emissions they would be looking at the problem like engineers and start with the low hanging fruit (most CO₂ savings per buck, while preserving freedoms).

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