Old Wires, New Wealth: How telecom companies are turning copper into cash

In Featured News by Wireless Estimator

THE NEW GOLD RUSH IS HERE, and it's all about recycled copper. As telecom companies migrate to fiber optics, they are poised to unearth billions in value from their old copper wiring, meeting economic and environmental goals.

THE NEW GOLD RUSH IS HERE, and it’s all about recycled copper. As telecom companies migrate to fiber optics, they are poised to unearth billions in value from their old copper wiring, meeting economic and environmental goals.

In the evolving telecommunications landscape, a new gold rush is emerging—not for the precious yellow metal, but for an equally valuable commodity: recycled copper.

AT&T Inc., BT Group Plc, Orange SA, and their global peers are gearing up to tap into a lucrative new revenue stream by harvesting their old copper wiring.

This initiative is more complex than unearthing and selling the cables. Decades underground have often left the wires degraded, and repackaging the material into marketable conditions is expensive and time-consuming.

Despite these hurdles, the potential rewards make copper recycling a worthwhile venture. According to TXO, a UK-based engineering firm, recycling operations could yield a 30% profit at today’s copper prices. Large telecom companies like AT&T are already assessing the feasibility and profitability of such endeavors.

As telecom companies transition to fiber-optic cables, they could recover 963,000 tons of copper over the next decade. According to TXO, this amount is valued at over $7 billion at current prices.

David Evans, who heads asset recovery at TXO, highlights the scale of this opportunity, noting that the firm is in discussions with more than a dozen telecom companies worldwide about copper recovery. “We’ve got all of this material sitting redundant,” Evans said, emphasizing the enormous commercial potential.

Copper, a critical component in electric vehicle batteries, wind turbines, and other clean-energy infrastructure, is witnessing a surge in demand.

Bloomberg estimates that annual demand for copper could grow by more than 50% by 2040. Simultaneously, mining new copper is becoming increasingly challenging and expensive, driving prices up by 50% from pre-pandemic levels.

Even under the most optimistic recovery estimates, recycled copper will constitute only a tiny fraction of the annual demand. This fraction could be smaller if the migration to fiber-optic cables is incomplete or if some copper cables must remain in place to avoid significant disruptions, such as maintaining critical health services. Nevertheless, any additional supply would be welcome in the market.

AT&T is approaching copper recycling with a strategic focus. Between 2021 and 2023, the company recycled over 14,000 tons of copper and anticipated significant growth in this business.

Susan Johnson, an executive vice president at AT&T leading its copper recovery and resale efforts, stated that with copper prices where they are, they are scaling quite significantly. AT&T currently works with four copper reclamation centers in the US and plans to add more.

According to TXO, at prices between $6,000 and $9,000 per ton, the profit can top 30% after extraction, recovery, and processing costs.

Copper’s extensive use in industries ranging from electronics to construction makes it a highly sought-after material. The International Copper Association reports that over 30% of copper was recycled between 2009 and 2019. In the current energy transition, copper is particularly crucial, with demand doubling by 2035, according to a 2022 report from S&P Global.

Despite the challenges, the rising demand and prices for copper make recycling efforts economically viable. While mining struggles to meet the increasing demand, each ton of recycled copper becomes more valuable.  

Johnson acknowledged this potential, stating that the company is now heading into much larger recycling volumes.

The FCC has been tracking copper network shutdowns since 2017, with 134 shutdown plans for AT&T in 2023 alone. This indicates a broad industry shift towards fiber-optic cables and the consequential opportunity in copper recycling.