90-year-old North Hollywood resident Aaron Epstein has been an AT&T customer since the 1960s. He’s been with the company so long, he witnessed the 1982 breakup of “ma bell” and watched as the telecom giant slowly but surely reconstituted itself. He even still has a Pacific Bell email address—despite the brand being discontinued in 2002.
This week, frustrated by AT&T’s longstanding failure to upgrade his sluggish DSL line, Epstein took out a quarter-page ad in the Wall Street Journal—just to give AT&T CEO John Stankey a piece of his mind.
The ad, first spotted on Twitter by Ars Technica, complains about AT&T’s apparent inability to provide anything faster than 3 Mbps in 2021 Los Angeles.
"We need to keep up with current technology and have looked to AT&T to supply us with fast Internet service," Epstein wrote. "Yet, although AT&T is advertising speeds up to 100Mbps for other neighborhoods, the fastest now available to us from AT&T is only 3Mbps.”
In a phone interview, Epstein told Motherboard he’s been an AT&T customer for an entire lifetime and grew tired of the company’s repeated failure to deliver.
“I’ve used Pacific Bell telephone since I got my own phone number in 1960,” he told me. “My family has had Bell service since I was born in 1930.”
Despite being one of the first in Los Angeles to upgrade to DSL when it became available in the 90s, he’s been waiting ever since for speed improvements that, despite persistent promises, never arrived.
“Your competitors now have speeds of over 200Mbps,” Epstein wrote in his ad. “Why is AT&T, a leading communications company, treating us so shabbily in North Hollywood?"
The answer isn’t complicated: this is what US telecom monopolies do. And, with the occasional exception, the US government generally lets them.
For decades AT&T has been repeatedly accused of failing to meaningfully upgrade its aging DSL network to fiber, especially in lower income and marginalized communities. Existing customers also frequently complain that AT&T often fails to promptly repair DSL lines that fall into disrepair. Last October, AT&T stopped selling DSL entirely.
While it’s a company’s prerogative to shift its business focus, AT&T has received countless billions in tax breaks, regulatory favors, and taxpayer subsidies for fiber upgrades that often never arrive.
During the Trump era alone, AT&T received an estimated $42 billion tax break the company claimed would result in thousands of new, “high-paying jobs” and a major boost in network investment. Instead, unions say the company laid off more than 42,000 workers in just three years, and reduced overall network investment last year.
AT&T also promised a boost in investment and employment numbers if the Trump FCC gutted net neutrality, promises that also failed to materialize once the task was completed.
In a statement to Motherboard, AT&T insisted it hasn’t shirked on network investment in the Los Angeles area.
“We continually enhance and invest in our wireless and wireline networks,” the company said. “We have invested more than $3.1 billion in our Los Angeles-area networks from 2017-2019.”
Yet according to a recent study by the telecom sector’s biggest union, only 14.93 million of the 52.97 million households in AT&T's 21-state wireline service area have access to fiber service.
AT&T told me it has reached out to Epstein to see what can be done. And while Epstein confirmed to Motherboard that he’s been contacted by several AT&T executives in the wake of the ad, he says he’s not holding his breath.
“That’s what they’ve been telling me for the last five years,” he said of AT&T’s promises that they’d look into the problem. “What gets my goat is, I’ve been getting snail mail advertising the faster speed, but when I call them they say it’s not available.”
AT&T isn’t alone in refusing to upgrade or consistently repair America’s aging DSL lines. Numerous US phone companies like Frontier, Windstream, and Centurylink (recently renamed Lumen) have largely scaled back residential broadband ambitions, usually to focus on far more profitable efforts like business-class service or wireless video advertising.
As a result, companies like Comcast and Charter (Spectrum) have enjoyed a growing monopoly over fixed line broadband access in the United States, resulting in virtually no real competition at faster speeds. That, in turn, results in high prices, spotty upgrades, and the kind of terrible customer service telecom giants have long been ridiculed for.
Epstein told me he pays AT&T around $110 every month for two voice lines and his DSL connection, which provides speeds of 3 Mbps downstream. Sometimes. More often it tops out at around 1.5 to 2 Mbps, he said, making it unusable for many tasks.
Epstein hoped that his $1,100 ad would finally end his wait for better broadband.
“I put the ad in the Dallas edition of the Wall Street Journal where the head office of AT&T is, and I also put it in the New York City edition because that’s where the investors are,” he said.
Investors, as it turns out, haven’t been particularly happy with AT&T either.
AT&T faced a recent investor revolt for the company’s massive debt load, acquired after the company spent nearly $200 billion over a five year period to merge with DirecTV and Time Warner. AT&T’s goal was to make inroads in the TV sector. Instead it’s been losing TV subscribers hand over fist and is now exploring selling DirecTV at a massive loss.
“The other thing that gets my goat is AT&T is making investments in motion picture production and DirecTV when they’re basically a communications company,” Epstein said. “Cobbler stick to thy last,” he added.
Granted not every customer can afford to run an ad in a major paper to grab AT&T’s attention. Marginalized communities in cities like Detroit and Cleveland have also complained about AT&T’s spotty upgrades for the better part of the last decade, with little to show for it.