AT&T releases copper fog over California

AT&T releases copper fog over California

04 May 2016

Opposition is growing to AT&T’s attempt to rewrite California law so it can pull out its wireline networks in rural and inner city communities, and use wireless networks to provide broadband and phone service instead. In response, AT&T is pushing misleading and lawyerly talking points to elected officials in rural counties and to non-profit groups in urban areas.

If you examine the claims made in the documents submitted by AT&T into the public record (see links below), each one is arguably true when read in isolation. But much is left out or presented out of context. Taken together, these selectively told half-truths create a completely false picture of what assembly bill 2395 will do to telecommunications networks in less affluent and less lucrative Californian communities.

The big lie is that AB 2395 is only about replacing old, analog phone systems with voice over Internet protocol technology. It does do that, and if it only did that it wouldn’t be a bad bill. There would be issues to address – reliability, back up battery power and job transitions come to mind – but those problems are solvable if all concerned negotiate in good faith.

Unfortunately, AB 2395 allows AT&T to do two other things: pull out copper networks and offer only wireless service instead, and run a monopoly business with virtually no regulatory brakes. The pitches it’s making to elected officials artfully evade those points by answering objections with mock outrage over legacy analog technology and pretending that’s all that’s at stake.

For example, AT&T dodges questions about ripping out copper lines by talking about meeting federal standards for “voice grade service” but ignoring broadband completely and only offering up the hope that “more advanced technologies may become available for consumers”.

Similarly, it claims that “federal copper retirement rules will remain in place”. But it doesn’t mention that those rules allow it to yank out copper lines with 90 days notice, or that states share telecoms regulatory authority with the FCC. California, unlike some other states, takes that responsibility seriously and polices monopoly operators more rigorously than most, much to AT&T’s annoyance.

California has to adapt to the new telecoms world created by digital technology, and plan for even more dramatic disruption in the years to come. The right way to do that is to consider all the facts and all points of view, and thoughtfully discuss alternatives before settling on new policy to put into law. The wrong way is to allow AT&T to write a bill that benefits its monopoly business model at everyone else’s expense.

AT&T response to objections by Rural County Representatives of California AT&T’s “myth vs. fact” AT&T VoIP talking points

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AT&T offers $10 service to low income homes lucky enough to have wireline service

27 April 2016

Oops. There goes the $10 a month service.

AT&T is rolling out its low cost Internet access program for low income households. It’s one of the conditions attached to the FCC’s approval of AT&T’s purchase of DirecTv last year.

It only applies to homes where Internet access service “is delivered to a fixed location over a physical wire or cable“. In other words, the wireless service AT&T wants to use to replace wireline service in rural and inner city California isn’t eligible. When AT&T pulls out the copper, the low cost broadband service disappears too.

If one person in a household is eligible for food stamps – now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – and no one owes AT&T any money for fixed Internet service (at least, no debts have been incurred in the last six months) then AT&T’s Access program offers service at $5 to $10 per month. AT&T’s online explanation is a little convoluted – not unusual for programs like these that aren’t exactly top of the incentive list for the sales department – but what it seems to be saying is this:

  • If 10 Mbps service or better is available at a qualifying home, then the cost is $10 per month. If not, then 5 Mbps service can be had for the same price.
  • If 5 Mbps isn’t possible, then a 3 Mbps package is available for $5 per month.
  • You don’t get to pick and choose which level you get, whatever the highest (and, consequently, most expensive) speed is available, that’s what you get.
  • If AT&T can’t deliver 3 Mbps to your house via wireline, sorry, you’ll have to pay market rates or do without.

That’s just one of the catches, though. The biggest potential gotcha is in the fine print regarding data caps. There’s a monthly limit of either 150 GB or 250 GB – it doesn’t say which applies where, but I’m guessing the caps correspond to legacy DSL or Uverse-based service, respectively – and a steep hit if you use more data. The cost is an extra $10 for every extra 50 MB or fraction thereof. So, if your limit is 150 MB and you use 151 MB, your low cost service doubled from $10 to $20 for that month.

Where it’s available, AT&T’s low income Access program would be a good deal for eligible households that keep an eye on data usage. It matches Comcast’s Internet Essentials price and is less than similar programs in the works for Frontier ($14 per month) and Charter ($15 per month). The question still to be answered is how enthusiastic AT&T will be about signing up customers at that low rate. If the sales and marketing effort behind it is as grudging and upsell focused as the terms and conditions, the actual benefits could be very limited.

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Bait and switch for California bill to allow AT&T’s rural abandonment

22 April 2016

Not the result he was expecting.

No real changes were made in to a proposed new law that would allow AT&T to pull out its wireline systems in rural and inner city communities in California, despite promises to the contrary.

The new text of assembly bill 2395 is now available, and it’s nothing like the way it was characterised by AT&T and its legislative cheering section during an assembly utilities and commerce committee hearing last week.

There are no significant changes to consumer protections. Some of the jargon was translated into plainer English, but the core of it – that AT&T can replace wireline with wireless service with only 30 days notice – remains. Language was also added saying that federal law regarding access for competitive carriers still applies. Duh.

There is nothing in the new language that says AT&T has to maintain or preserve wireline infrastructure, or sell it to a company that’s interested in that business, despite the fact that rural copper networks were largely paid for by taxpayer dollars. And those subsidies will continue to flow into AT&T’s pocket, even if copper lines are left to rot on the poles.

During the hearing, committee chairman Mike Gatto (D – Los Angeles) said…

You can rest assured that nobody will tear up any copper line infrastructure…At least, I don’t think it’ll happen. This committee will not let it happen.

Well, this committee did let it happen. Three assemblymen – Brian Dahle (R – Redding), Roger Hernandez (D – West Covina) and Mark Stone (D – Santa Cruz) – tried to preventing it by voting no, but the remaining dozen committee members accepted verbal assurances that strong and meaningful amendments were in the works, which were given by the bill’s nominal author, Evan Low (D – Silicon Valley), Gatto and AT&T.

Whether they were genuinely suckered or just played along with the game doesn’t matter at this point. The real question is whether the members of the assembly’s appropriations committee – the next stop for AB 2395 – will be as accomodating.


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