April 13, 2021

AT&Ts DSL Phaseout Is Leaving Poor, Rural Users Behind


AT&T has deployed fiber-to-the-home internet to less than 30 percent of the households in its 21-state territory, according to a new report that says AT&T has targeted wealthy, non-rural areas in its fiber upgrades.


This story originally appeared on Ars Technica, a trusted source for technology news, tech policy analysis, reviews, and more. Ars is owned by WIRED’s parent company, Condé Nast.

The report, cowritten by an AT&T workers union and an advocacy group, is timely, being issued just a few days after AT&T confirmed it will stop connecting new customers to its aging DSL network. That does not mean customers in DSL areas will get fiber, because AT&T last year said it was mostly done expanding its fiber service. AT&T said at the time that it would expand fiber incrementally, but only in areas where it makes financial sense for AT&T to do so. We’ll provide more detail on the DSL cutoff later in this article—in short, the fiber/copper hybrid known as AT&T Internet is still offered to new customers, but the slower product that AT&T sells under the DSL name is being discontinued except for existing customers.

Citing data that ISPs are required to submit to the Federal Communications Commission, the report issued this week said that AT&T had built fiber-to-the-home to 28 percent of the households in its footprint, as of June 30, 2019. The report was written by the Communications Workers of America (CWA), a union that represents AT&T employees, and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), an advocacy group that has been tracking AT&T’s broadband deployments for years. The groups say that AT&T has left rural areas and people with low incomes with old, inadequate broadband services.

There are 52.97 million households in AT&T’s home-internet service area, and 14.93 million of them have fiber-to-the-home access, the CWA told Ars. The fiber percentages were particularly bad in some states, with rates of 14 to 16 percent in Michigan, Illinois, Mississippi, and Arkansas, the CWA/NDIA report said.

“Across the predominantly rural counties in AT&T’s national footprint, only 5 percent of households (217,284 out of 4,442,675) have access to fiber,” the report said. In urban areas, the situation is better but not problem-free. “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.

AT&T Upgrades Leave Poor People Behind

NDIA’s research in previous years has called attention to AT&T’s “digital redlining” in cities such as Cleveland and Detroit, in which the richest inhabitants of cities are prioritized for fiber upgrades. The new report found much the same.

“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.

AT&T can provide decent broadband speeds without building fiber all the way to each home, with a fiber-to-the-node approach that minimizes use of copper phone cables. But there are still many areas where AT&T does not offer service at the FCC’s standard of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. The nearly 6-year-old 25/3 Mbps standard has been roundly criticized by consumer advocates, who say it is no longer fast enough to be considered modern broadband, but it would be a big step up for many people in AT&T territory.

“For 28 percent of the households in its network footprint, AT&T’s internet service does not meet the FCC’s 25/3 Mbps benchmark to be considered broadband,” the CWA/NDIA report said.

Some customers in AT&T territory are lucky enough to have a cable operator that can provide modern speeds. But even for them, AT&T’s failure to deploy fiber means they “are deprived of the benefits of competition in price, choice, and service quality,” the report said. The lack of competition especially hurts people with low incomes, the report explained:

“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. NDIA’s affiliates are finding that their community members who qualify for the AT&T’s low-income discount offering, Access from AT&T, often find that the data speeds available at their homes are too slow for the video-intensive applications they need for school, work, and telemedicine.”