They're at it again. Recently, they have been called out for taking advantage of E-rate; now they are taking advantage of their own lack of infrastructure investment to worm their way out of obligations to serve low-income residents. Fortunately, a nonprofit group caught up with AT&T's shenanigans and held their feet to the fire.
"Nah, We Don't Have To Do That..."
As part of FCC-mandated conditions under which AT&T was allowed to acquire DirecTV in 2015, the telecommunications conglomerate created the "Access from AT&T" program, offering discount Internet access to low-income households. The program consists of tiered services - download speeds of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $10 per month, 5 Mbps for $10 per month, and 3 Mbps for $5 per month.
The company is required to enroll households in the fastest speeds available, but a significant amount of low-income families don't qualify because the fastest speed AT&T offered to their home is 1.5 Mbps download. The problem, created by AT&T's own lack of infrastructure investment in certain neighborhoods, allowed AT&T to dodge their responsibility under the terms of the DirecTV acquisition by simply denying enrollment to households with speeds less than 3 Mbps. Trouble is, some one noticed.
NDIA In Cleveland, Detroit
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) realized the scope of the problem when they attempted to help families in low-income neighborhoods in Detroit and Cleveland sign up for Access from AT&T. In addition to discovering that residents could only obtain 1.5 Mbps download speeds, NDIA found that AT&T denied these households enrollment because their speeds were too slow. The only other option for ineligible households was AT&T’s normal rate for 1.5 Mbps service, which is six times the cost of the Access program.
Loopholes: All Lawyered Up And Nowhere To Go
By diving through a cavernous loophole, AT&T cleverly manipulated the terms of the merger order and single handedly squelched the intended purpose of the program. According to the directive, AT&T “shall offer wireline Broadband Internet Access Service at speeds of at least 3 Mbps, where technically available, to qualifying households in the Company’s wireline footprint for no more than $5 per month.”
AT&T’s repeated unwillingness to invest in infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods precluded residents from living in neighborhoods where 3 Mbps download was technically possible. Yet, the corporate giant used lack of speed availability to justify denying Internet access discounts for those who need it the most. It's amazing Randall Stephenson doesn't get dizzy from all that circular reasoning.
Unfortunately, this technicality didn’t just affect a few households on the fringe of AT&T’s service area: according to data from the FCC, 21 percent of census blocks in Detroit and in Cleveland have Internet speeds of 1.5 Mbps or less. Unsurprisingly, these blocks include mostly low-income households in inner-city neighborhoods.
Don't Mistake Us For Philanthropists
Because these households can't partake in the program, NDIA asked AT&T to extend their $5 per month offer to households with 1.5 Mbps speeds. While 1.5 Mbps is considerably slower than the program’s slowest speed, and far from the FCC’s broadband goal of 25 Mbps, AT&T would not budge. It took the corporate giant a month to reply:
“AT&T is not prepared to expand the low income offer to additional speed tiers beyond those established as a condition of the merger approval.”
NDIA Director Angela Siefer detailed the exchange in a post, writing
“AT&T's response is very unfortunate for tens of thousands of households in the company's 21-state service territory who may need affordable Internet access the most, but who happen to live in places – both city neighborhoods and rural communities – where AT&T has failed to upgrade its residential service to provide reasonable speeds.”
Bad Press Has A Purpose Sometimes
After a significant amount of bad press, AT&T reversed its original stance. AT&T spokesman Brett Levecchio was quoted in CNN Money:
"We're currently working to expand the eligibility process of Access from AT&T to the 2 percent of our home Internet customers unable to receive Internet speed tiers of 3 Mbps and above."
Siefer replied by pointing out that 2 percent of all AT&T customers still equates to 250,000 people, typically concentrated in low-income neighborhoods where the only Internet access available is the same slow technology found in Cleveland and Detroit. She wrote in a follow-up post:
“Some are already paying AT&T full price for their slow connections, while many others can’t afford Internet at all—and still won’t be able to, unless the Access speed threshold is lowered. Both groups will benefit from AT&T’s change of heart...We look forward to learning more about AT&T’s plans to extend Access from AT&T to these households, and to working with our local affiliates to maximize the program’s contribution to digital inclusion in their communities.”