AT&T is lobbying against proposals to subsidize fiber-to-the-home deployment across the US, arguing that rural people don’t need fiber and should be satisfied with Internet service that provides only 10Mbps upload speeds.
AT&T Executive VP Joan Marsh detailed the company’s stance Friday in a blog post titled “Defining Broadband For the 21st Century.” AT&T’s preferred definition of 21st-century broadband could be met with wireless technology or AT&T’s VDSL, a 14-year-old system that brings fiber to neighborhoods but uses copper telephone wires for the final connections into each home.
“[T]here would be significant additional cost to deploy fiber to virtually every home and small business in the country, when at present there is no compelling evidence that those expenditures are justified over the service quality of a 50/10 or 100/20Mbps product,” AT&T wrote. (That would be 50Mbps download speeds with 10Mbps upload speeds or 100Mbps downloads with 20Mbps uploads.)
AT&T said that “overbuilding” areas that already have acceptable speeds “would needlessly devalue private investment and waste broadband-directed dollars.”
“Overbuilding” is what the broadband industry calls one ISP building in an area already served by another ISP, whereas Internet users desperate for cheaper, faster, and more reliable service call that “broadband competition.”
Democrats want 100/100Mbps in rural areas
The AT&T blog post came about two weeks after Congressional Democrats proposed an $80 billion fund to deploy broadband with download and upload speeds of 100Mbps to unserved areas. The Biden administration is also planning a $3 trillion package that includes funding for rural broadband among many other priorities. Four US senators recently called on the Biden administration to establish a “21st century definition of high-speed broadband” of 100Mbps both upstream and downstream.
The US subsidizing deployment of symmetrical 100Mbps speeds would help other ISPs bring fast broadband to areas where AT&T still uses old phone lines that have fallen into disrepair because AT&T hasn’t properly maintained them. AT&T could bid for the funding too, of course, but it doesn’t want to build fiber throughout rural areas. AT&T previously said it is deploying fiber to 3 million more homes and businesses this year, but the company is only doing so in metro areas and mostly in those metro areas where AT&T already built out most of the infrastructure and can get a better return on investment. There are tens of millions of homes without fiber in AT&T’s 21-state wireline service area.
AT&T has been fighting against increases in broadband-speed benchmarks for years. Back in 2014, AT&T urged the Federal Communications Commission to keep its standard of 4Mbps downloads and 1Mbps uploads. AT&T claimed at the time that even 10Mbps downloads would “exceed what many Americans need today,” but the FCC raised the standard to 25Mbps down and 3Mbps up in January 2015.
AT&T’s current fixed-wireless service only provides download speeds of 10 to 25Mbps and upload speeds of 1Mbps, but the company plans upgrades that could help the wireless service qualify for the proposed $80 billion fund if Congress doesn’t require high upload speeds.
AT&T did take $428 million per year from the FCC starting in 2015 to bring 10Mbps download and 1Mbps upload speeds to 1.1 million rural homes and businesses in 18 states. AT&T later gave the FCC false broadband-coverage data and Mississippi officials accused the telco of failing to deploy the required broadband. AT&T said it was correcting the mistakes and that it would meet the end-of-2020 deployment deadline in all 18 states.
A 100Mbps upload requirement could also prod cable companies into finally deploying the symmetrical cable services they’ve been teasing for years. Comcast and other cable companies still limit upload speeds to 35Mbps on gigabit-download plans.
How AT&T would define broadband
AT&T’s blog post on Friday addressed two topics: how broadband should be defined to determine which homes are considered unserved, and what types of broadband networks should be chosen when the government distributes funding to ISPs.
AT&T argued that the FCC’s 6-year-old broadband definition of 25Mbps downstream and 3Mbps upstream “is sufficient to support Zoom working and remote learning.” But AT&T admitted, “When Zooming, streaming, and tweeting is combined in an average household of four, it’s easy to conclude that download speeds must increase.”
As noted earlier in this article, AT&T is opposed to a broadband definition that requires symmetrical upload and download speeds. “A definition built on symmetrical speeds could dramatically expand the locations deemed ‘unserved,’ leading to some areas being unnecessarily overbuilt while leaving fewer dollars to support areas in greater need, which tend to be rural,” AT&T wrote.
AT&T also admitted that fiber technology is the most “future-proof” but said that bringing fiber to every home “is not practical.” AT&T wrote:
Some flexibility must be preserved, particularly for the next generation of fixed wireless technologies likely to be deployed in the recently auctioned C-Band that will easily deliver performance at 100Mbps down. But wireless networks are not built to deliver symmetrical speeds, so any mandate around symmetrical performance could undermine delivery of these efficient and robust technology solutions in hard to serve areas of the country.
AT&T warns of high monthly bills
AT&T also argued that the monthly bills for fiber service will be too expensive for many rural customers. “As higher speed networks get deployed to rural America, the current availability challenge could easily become an affordability one,” AT&T said.
But the point of an $80 billion fund to deploy high-speed broadband, like the one proposed by Democrats, is to subsidize deployment so that rural customers get the same service at similar prices as urban customers.
A bill summary provided by House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) said that ISPs accepting subsidies would have to provide “at least 100/100Mbps with sufficiently low latency, offering broadband service at prices that are comparable to, or lower than, the prices charged for comparable service, and offering an affordable service plan.”
Congress already approved a $7.17 billion fund that schools and libraries will use to help people get Internet access at home. Separately, the pending legislation proposed by Clyburn and other Democrats would add $6 billion to the Emergency Broadband Connectivity Fund for Americans who have low incomes or who lost their jobs during the pandemic. Congress initially provided $3.2 billion for that fund, and the FCC is aiming to start enrollment by the last week of April.
Fiber compared to electricity
With Democrats controlling the White House and both chambers of Congress, at least some members of the party want to make real progress toward universal broadband that doesn’t leave rural people with worse service than ISPs are capable of providing. Clyburn compared the broadband-deployment plan to “rural electrification efforts in the last century.”
“In 2021, we should be able to bring high-speed Internet to every family in America—regardless of their ZIP code,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said when she announced the identical Senate version of the plan.
The comparison between fiber and electricity has been made by numerous broadband advocates over the years. That includes Glen Akins, who helped lead a successful pro-municipal broadband ballot campaign in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 2017. (Voters approved the ballot question despite heavy lobbying against it by the cable and telecom industry.)
“The only households that should be exempted from a fiber requirement are those that lack a connection to the electrical grid,” Akins wrote in a tweet last week. “If you run power to a house, you can run fiber to a house. Substituting anything else is grift.”