AT&T has quietly announced it has stopped selling digital subscriber line (DSL) broadband as of October 1. But while the company says the move will help it focus on delivering better options to U.S. consumers, a new report says these customers shouldn’t hold their breath.
"We are focused on enhancing our network with more advanced, higher speed technologies like fiber and wireless, which consumers are demanding," AT&T said in a statement. "We're beginning to phase out outdated services like DSL and new orders for the service will no longer be supported after October 1.” AT&T DSL, traditionally offering speeds between 1 and 6 Mbps downstream, wasn’t even technically considered “broadband” under the FCC definition (25 Mbps downstream, 4 Mbps upstream). AT&T, for its part, says its focus will now be on things like fifth-generation wireless (5G) and fiber optic broadband. “Current DSL customers will be able to continue their existing service or where possible upgrade to our 100% fiber network,” AT&T said.
But a well-timed report by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance says AT&T has a long history of refusing to upgrade less affluent neighborhoods to fiber. Only 5 percent of households (217,284 out of 4,442,675) across AT&T’s rural network footprint have access to fiber, and the company is in no rush to upgrade them anytime soon, the organization said.
“AT&T prioritizes network upgrades to wealthier areas, leaving lower-income communities with outdated technologies—households with fiber available have median income 34 percent higher than those with DSL only,” the report said.
Because deploying broadband isn’t profitable enough, quickly enough for Wall Street, many U.S. phone companies have largely given up on residential broadband. Despite billions in taxpayer subsidies, most major U.S. phone companies have refused to upgrade or repair aging DSL lines, often leaving lines and equipment laying around rusted and in disarray. As a result, cable giants like Comcast enjoy a broadband monopoly over countless markets, especially at faster speeds. This lack of competition results in higher prices and the kind of terrible customer service the industry has long been known for. AT&T’s apathy isn’t just a problem for rural users, the NDIA said. Less than 30 percent of households in AT&T’s 21-state territory have access to faster fiber service. "Seventy percent of households in urban counties still lack access to fiber from AT&T because the company has made fiber available to only 14.7 million households out of 48.4 million total households in these counties," the report said.
In 2017, AT&T promised to expand broadband access significantly in exchange for a $42 billion tax break from the Trump administration. In 2018, AT&T promised significantly more broadband deployment ahead of the FCC’s attack on net neutrality. But AT&T not only trimmed overall investment in 2020, the company has laid off 42,000 employees in just three years. The NDIA has released a series of reports accusing AT&T of “redlining,” or refusing to upgrade DSL lines in low income and minority-dominated areas of cities like Cleveland and Detroit, allegations the company denied in a statement to Motherboard. “Our investment decisions are based on the capacity needs of our network and demand for our services,” AT&T said. “We do not ‘redline’ internet access and any suggestion that we do is wrong.”
But the NDIA says its findings have been verified by third-party academic researchers like Dr. Brian Whitacre of Oklahoma State University, who last year confirmed findings that AT&T refused to deploy fiber to low-income areas of Dallas, despite decades of state and federal subsidies specifically aimed at shoring up such gaps. “The analysis for Dallas demonstrates that AT&T has withheld fiber-enhanced broadband improvements from most Dallas neighborhoods with high poverty rates, relegating them to Internet access services which are vastly inferior to the services enjoyed by their counterparts nearby in the higher-income Dallas suburbs,” Whitacre wrote. The NIDA’s latest study found that AT&T’s apathy toward these markets impacts the decisions of any other ISPs that might otherwise compete there. “Without competition for market share, providers have minimal incentive to expand the market by recruiting and supporting new broadband adopters—for example, by promoting low-income discount programs or investing in community digital inclusion partnerships,” the report said. The previous FCC had required that AT&T deploy fiber to 12.5 million homes as part of its 2015 merger with DirecTV. But those obligations have ended, and the company has made it very clear fiber upgrades moving forward will be even spottier than in years past.
Telecom experts say the decision comes at a terrible time for the 42 million Americans without broadband access during an historic health crisis.
“During a national crisis where Internet access is critical to learning, speaking with a doctor, working and safe social distancing, cutting off a service that is predominantly found in low-income areas is the epitome of tone-deafness,” former FCC advisor Gigi Sohn told Motherboard. “When millions of jobs have been lost and families are scrambling to make ends meet, pushing Americans to buy even more expensive broadband services seems especially cruel.”