On a virtual panel of government, policy and tech experts this afternoon, there was unanimous agreement that AT&T is failing communities on the broadband front, including from AT&T workers on the call.
The discussion was part of a panel called "Disconnected: How Corporate Giants Are Failing to Provide Broadband and Good Jobs" and centered around two new reports. One from the Economic Policy Institute demonstrating that telecom workers have significantly increased their skills but seen wages stagnate or drop since the 1970s, due to dismantling of unions and large companies favoring subcontracting.
The other report, released by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), focused specifically on AT&T and what the firms call the company's harmful policy of "digital redlining."
According to the study by CWA and NDIA, AT&T is "making the digital divide worse" by not investing in building fiber-optic cable, instead halting its national build-out to residential homes in mid-2019.
As a result, the report says the company has made FTTH available for "fewer than one-third of the households in its network." What's more, the upgrades are inequitable where they occur. For instance, the report finds that AT&T "prioritizes network upgrades to wealthier areas, leaving lower income communities with outdated technologies" like copper. Worse is that those communities with slower service are paying just as much as their wealthier, fiber-fed neighbors.
"AT&T's similar pattern of not deploying fiber, or not lighting up deployed fiber, over the past four years leaves many residents with 2005 vintage DSL, at download speeds of 6, 3, 1.5 or even .768 Mbps. Many households that can only receive slow service from AT&T still pay the same $70 monthly price they would be charged for 100/100 Mbps fiber service -- if they could get it," states the report.
In addition to halting its fiber build and neglecting lower-income areas, the report also calls out AT&T for being slow. The data shows that for 28% of homes in its network footprint, AT&T's service does not meet the FCC benchmark for broadband speed (25/3 Mbit/s). Looking at individual states, the percentage of households with sub-standard speeds jumps to 45% in Mississippi and 49% in Oklahoma.
Speaking on the call, a 20-plus year AT&T splicing technician Stan Santos, a member of CWA, confirmed from his experience that AT&T is leaving communities behind.
"I consider myself a staunch advocate for getting communities more connected to broadband. With the pandemic, digital redlining is a five-alarm emergency," he said. "Communities lack basic infrastructure for fast reliable broadband. My employer AT&T is directly responsible for its failure to connect these communities to broadband."
The failure to service communities has direct consequences, said Santos. "It breaks my heart to hear a mother of a 15-year-old say her son was tired of trying to get a connection for online learning and decided to go work in the fields instead."
To fix these failures, the report makes a series of recommendations for AT&T, including: doubling the number of households passed by fiber in two years ("If AT&T invests one quarter of its annual free cash flow [projected to be more than $25 billion] into rapid fiber deployment, it could deploy to more than 6 million locations per year," states the analysis.); upgrading its network in rural communities; and renewing efforts to deploy fiber in urban locations. It also calls on the company to stop outsourcing to subcontractors and laying off its workers, and to make low-income products more widely available.
AT&T, for its part, refutes the report's claims.
"Our investment decisions are based on the capacity needs of our network and demand for our services. We do not 'redline' internet access and any suggestion that we do is wrong," an AT&T spokesperson said in an email to Broadband World News. "We have invested more in the United States over the past 5 years (2015-2019) than any other public company. We have spent more than $125 billion in our U.S. wireless and wireline networks, including capital investments and acquisition of wireless spectrum and operations. Our 5G network provides high-speed internet access nationwide, our fiber network serves more 18 million customer locations and we continue to invest to expand both networks."
Government plays a role
While AT&T was the focus of the report, the panel discussion also highlighted the need for stronger policies to end the digital divide as a whole.
Dan Mauer, director of government affairs at CWA, rattled off a few policies that Congress should pass, including the Affordable Accessible Internet for All Act, introduced by Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), which addresses both affordability and accessibility issues by investing significantly in broadband infrastructure. It also includes labor protections and creates a low-income broadband benefit.
Further, said Mauer, Congress should protect local governments' ability to establish standards for 5G deployment. "This addresses both equity and workforce issues," he said, as it allows localities to improve local safety and health issues for workers, and they can further secure commitments from contractors to build out in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.
"If we adopt all these policies, we think we'll be in much better shape," he said.
— Nicole Ferraro, contributing editor, Light Reading