As planning for the post-pandemic recovery gets underway, eyes are focused on the FCC and America’s future broadband policies. There are tens of millions of Americans across the United States with either no access or very limited access to affordable broadband internet. This was a known problem even before the pandemic, but COVID-19 lockdowns exacerbated these issues dramatically. Home broadband use has skyrocketed over the past 12 months. There are proposals before Congress to build an $80 billion nationwide fiber network to serve rural areas that currently lack affordable wireline service. The network would offer 100/100Mbps service with symmetric upload/download bandwidth.
AT&T thinks that’s a terrible idea. The company’s blog post is only grudgingly willing to grant the idea that broadband upload speeds might need to improve in the first place.
The pandemic has broadened the consensus opinion that it’s time to revisit the FCC’s current broadband definition of 25/3 Mbps. To be clear, service at that speed is sufficient to support zoom working and remote learning. According to Zoom’s website, a group call using high quality video requires speeds of 1 Mbps up / 600 kbps down.
According to Zoom’s website, 1080p video requires a 3Mbps upload. The “high quality” referred to in AT&T’s blog post is a 480p video stream. It isn’t unreasonable to imagine a family of 3-4 people needing 7-12 Mbps in upload bandwidth to support simultaneous Zoom sessions.
AT&T acknowledges that the pandemic has demonstrated the need for faster download speeds, but pushes back against the idea of a nationwide fiber network as a waste of money that would pour funds into rural areas where few people live, to little effect. It writes:
[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 100/20 Mbps product… Second, as noted above, adopting a symmetrical standard could result in overbuilding existing services today that are currently meeting modern connectivity needs.
This is intended to sound like a rational argument for fitting the size of a solution to the scope of a problem. In normal conversation, overbuilding literally means “building more than you need to.” In the telecommunications industry, however, overbuilding means entering a market already served by existing providers.
What AT&T is asking for is the right to be free from meaningful competition, so long as its own services “meet modern connectivity needs.” But what defines modern connectivity needs? In part, the federal broadband standard that AT&T wants to base on the minimal streaming requirements of ScurvyVision “high quality” Zoom.
AT&T has its own reasons for pushing back against the idea of faster broadband, as Ars Technica details. If Congress prioritizes symmetric connection speeds, AT&T won’t be able to meet the service requirements with its existing VDSL service. Earlier this year, an investigation by the California state government found that AT&T raised POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) prices by 153 percent over the past decade, even as they slashed their investments into network maintenance and upkeep. Chronic service outages in excess of 24 hours have skyrocketed, especially in rural areas. AT&T’s DSL service runs over the same copper wires the company is systemically neglecting all across the United States.
AT&T isn’t fighting against building a nationwide fiber network across rural and unserved areas because it wants to stop government waste. It’s fighting to block other companies who do want to serve rural areas and rural customers from accessing federal funds that would be made available to build those networks. AT&T neither wishes to be forced to improve its service nor to lose customers for failing to do so.
Speaking for myself, I strongly favor efforts to improve rural connectivity, provided whatever partner companies are selected are held to account and required to meet service mandates. There have been far too many stories about people buying houses on the promise of internet service, only to be told they’ll need to pony up $50,000 to extend a wire or go without. The FCC’s methods for measuring rural service are terrible, though new, vastly superior data is currently being gathered. It’s long past time to deal with this problem and AT&T’s self-interested arguments for the dangers of a federal program to do so don’t pass any kind of smell test.
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