AT&T, FCC Abandon Rural Broadband Customers

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, October 16, 2020

Weekly Digest

AT&T, FCC Abandon Rural Broadband Customers

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of October 12-16, 2020

Kevin Taglang

On October 1, AT&T stopped selling digital-subscriber-line (DSL) connections. At first glance, the move may seem like a market-based decision to drop an obsolete technology. But as journalists and advocates were quick to pick up on: What about the abandoned customers? At a time when safety dictates that many of us learn and earn from home, how are people to do so when a commercial decision impacts health and well-being? Although the situation seems ripe for government intervention, the Federal Communications Commission's adherence to "light-touch" regulation is preventing any recourse for consumers.

What is DSL?

DSL is a technology that connects homes to the internet over traditional telephone lines. On its website, AT&T says, "While DSL is great for light internet use, such as web browsing or email, it is not recommended for activities that require significant speed." For video streaming, online gaming, and other bandwidth-intensive activities, AT&T suggests service provided over newer technology, like fiber-optic cables. 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, broadband customers were picking services that deliver higher speeds. DSL couldn't keep up. AT&T's DSL service did not exceed download speeds of 6 Mbps, less than a fourth of the Federal Communications Commission's benchmark for broadband which is 25 Mbps (download) and 3 Mbps (upload). Moreover, AT&T's service came with caps on how much data a customer could use in a month (150 gigabytes). When the choice is available, consumers are overwhelmingly picking cable's hybrid-fiber-coax broadband architecture over DSL. Keep in mind, cable operators don’t advertise speeds below 40 Mbps anymore (except, of course, for low-cost offerings to low-income families). Shopping for service from a cable operator, you'll more likely be directed to a 100 or 200 Mbps service. 

Broadband industry analysts have found that the pandemic is simply accelerating existing trends in the U.S. broadband marketplace. Increasingly, traditional telephone companies like AT&T and Frontier are losing broadband subscribers while cable companies like Comcast and Charter are adding customers.

So it may not be surprising that AT&T is abandoning an increasingly obsolete technology. AT&T reported 653,000 total DSL connections at the end of its second quarter, compared to 14.48 million on its fiber-optic and hybrid-fiber services. The latter, sold as “AT&T Internet,” combines fiber trunk lines with DSL last-mile connections for faster speeds.

But what about all those DSL customers? AT&T is encouraging current DSL customers to upgrade to AT&T Internet — where it is available. Research from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance finds that AT&T offers fiber-based service in just 28% of its territory. So what about where the technology isn't available? Dave Burstein, editor of the trade publication Fast Net News, estimates that 3 to 6% of the U.S. can only get wired-broadband via DSL. 

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance estimates that people living in rural areas of the southern U.S. will be hit hardest by AT&T's decision. ILSR analysis of FCC data shows that 13,200 households in Georgia, 11,700 in Florida, and 9,700 in Mississippi will no longer have access to service. South Carolina and Texas have just under 8,000 households affected. Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, California, and Oklahoma will see between 3,300 and 4,300 households hit, and Illinois, Arkansa, Kentucky, Michigan, and North Carolina between 1,000 and 2,000. Indiana, Ohio, Nevada, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Kansas contain 700 or fewer households reliant on DSL. Collectively, that’s more than 207,000 American households which, if disconnected, will have no option for internet service aside from mobile devices or satellite service.

What's a Regulator to Do?

Since AT&T's decision will widen the digital divide and the FCC's top priority is to close the digital divide, the commission must plan to intercede, right? Well, not the current FCC. 

In 2017, the FCC reclassified broadband internet access service as a Title I information service on the grounds that whatever harms this might do to public safety, or how it might impact access for rural and poor Americans, are “outweighed” by the benefits of deregulation. In a filing this week, Public Knowledge, Communications Workers of America, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Next Century Cities, Common Cause, and Greenlining Institute warned the FCC that its deregulatory agenda leaves consumers vulnerable to losing broadband service during the pandemic. 

The FCC recently released a draft order on a court-imposed reconsideration of the 2017 net neutrality order because of the court's concerns that the FCC did not properly consider emergency services, deployment issues, and service for low-income households. 

“The FCC’s stubborn insistence on protecting corporations from oversight — rather than protecting subscribers from harm — reaches its natural conclusion in the agency’s draft Order reaffirming its classifying broadband as a Title I ‘information service,’" said Harold Feld, Senior Vice President at Public Knowledge and author of the recent filing. "Repeatedly, the draft Order affirms that whatever harms happen to the American people, this FCC considers it acceptable to keep the current broadband monopoly deregulated.”

The filing reiterates what many have feared about the 2017 order: it leaves the FCC powerless to address the widespread elimination of critical broadband in a time of national pandemic and the worst forest fire season in U.S. history. Moreover, the FCC's attempts to preempt state regulation of broadband muddies the waters and inhibits the ability of the states to protect subscribers from disconnection. Consumers, then, are left with no recourse at all.

Going Forward in a Pandemic

Last month, we highlighted so much news of the persistent, glaring digital divide in the U.S. as laid bare during the COVID-19 pandemic. For people without reliable broadband, the pandemic has been particularly devastating. The news from AT&T this month means the divide will only widen. The Public Knowledge filing this week asks the FCC to shelve its drat order in the latest net neutrality order which states the 2017 decision will help help “enable the deployment of rural broadband ... and will help close the digital divide.” Eventually, facts catch up to all of us. What we expect is that regulators, acting in the public interest, will be responsive to the facts.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Public Infrastructure/Private Service: A Shared-Risk Partnership Model for 21st Century Broadband Infrastructure

How Can America’s Communities Secure the Benefits of Fiber-Optic Infrastructure? (Joanne Hovis, Jim Baller, David Talbot, Cat Blake)

What is the 5G Fund for Rural America? (Kevin Taglang)

Upcoming Events

Oct 19 - 23 -- TPI Aspen Goes Virtual 2020

Oct 21 -- Digital Inclusion and K-12 Education: The Impact of COVID-19 on Students and Educators (NTIA)

Oct 27 -- October 2020 Open Commission Hearing (FCC)

Oct 28 -- Task Force for Reviewing the Connectivity and Technology Needs of Precision Agriculture in the United States (FCC)

Oct 29 -- Smart Regions Innovation, Recovery, & Resilience Virtual Workshop (NTIA)

Oct 29 - 30 -- Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (FCC)

Oct 30 -- Successful Strategies for Obtaining Category Two Support (Schools Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition)

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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Broadband Delivers Opportunities and Strengthens Communities

By Kevin Taglang.