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AT&T hopes you’ll forget its years-long fight against accurate broadband maps

Enlarge / AT&T’s logo at its corporate headquarters on March 13, 2020 in Dallas, Texas.

AT&T—which has spent the past decade fighting US-government attempts to improve the country’s horrible broadband maps—is now claiming to be very concerned about the mapping problem that has helped thwart efforts to wire up millions of American homes without adequate broadband access.

AT&T CEO John Stankey this week published an opinion piece in Politico with the apparent goals of improving AT&T’s reputation, reducing government regulation, and getting more federal funding. The piece is titled, “A Game Plan to—Finally—Connect Every American to Broadband,” and the first item on AT&T’s game plan is “to identify where broadband is unavailable with geographic precision.”

Stankey wrote:

We need to telescope our broadband maps from the macro, census-block level to the micro, building level to understand with more precision where broadband is unavailable. The government’s existing mapping methodology is past its shelf life. Currently, it does not identify the exact number and location of households that do not have meaningful broadband service, especially in rural areas. Congress recognized this in March by passing the Broadband DATA Act, which will create a more accurate and detailed map of broadband availability, helping companies like mine have the information needed to determine the focus and cost of deployment. The only problem is that Congress hasn’t yet appropriated the funds for the more granular maps, although legislation is currently pending.

AT&T’s years-long fight against better maps

Why doesn’t the United States already have broadband maps with this level of precision? Partly because AT&T and other ISPs have repeatedly fought the Federal Communications Commission’s attempts to require submission of more accurate maps.

AT&T may have recognized that its fight against more accurate broadband maps is largely over, with Stankey’s Politico essay noting Congress’ passage of the Broadband DATA Act—and urging Congress to hurry up in appropriating funding. But even with the Broadband DATA Act mentioned by Stankey, AT&T is still pushing for limits on how the FCC implements the data-collection system mandated by Congress.

Here are some examples from AT&T’s filings to the FCC since 2011:

  • In April 2011, AT&T told the FCC that ISPs shouldn’t have to report the street addresses where they’ve deployed broadband to homes and should not be required “to report actual broadband speeds.” AT&T also said the FCC should not collect data on broadband prices, service quality, or customer satisfaction.
  • In February 2013, AT&T met with FCC officials to discuss how collecting more accurate broadband data would “impose new burdens on AT&T” because “the information is not gathered in the course of its normal business operations.”
  • In October 2017, AT&T told the FCC that “the Commission’s proposal to collect mobile broadband and voice subscribership, and fixed broadband deployment at a more granular level, e.g. the sub-census block/address level, should be rejected because it would not generate useful information.” Address-level data would not be useful “because providers do not record addresses in a standardized, uniform manner,” AT&T said.
  • In another October 2017 filing, AT&T said that the FCC should not even give ISPs the option of providing geospatial broadband data instead of the less-accurate census-block data ISPs were otherwise required to submit. (The FCC finally required geospatial maps in an August 2019 vote.)

Recognizing that opinion within the government had shifted—with even a prominent Republican senator criticizing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s failure to deliver more accurate maps—AT&T in October 2018 conceded that more accurate data was necessary and offered its own proposal for collecting it.

Despite that change, AT&T continued pushing for limits on mapping requirements:

  • In September 2019, AT&T told the FCC that “transparency” around how ISPs use radio-propagation models to generate maps would be preferable to “more prescriptive standards.”
  • In October 2019, AT&T said the FCC should not demand more accurate 5G maps, saying that “requiring 5G coverage maps in this early stage of 5G deployment could reveal sensitive information about cell site locations and even customer locations, in cases where 5G is being deployed in high-band spectrum for specific enterprise customers.” AT&T also pushed for limits on requirements for reporting the speed of non-5G networks.
  • In July 2020, AT&T objected to the FCC’s proposal for implementing the Broadband DATA Act, saying that “many” of the data points the FCC proposed requiring are “of questionable value” or unnecessary for verifying the accuracy of carrier-submitted coverage maps.
  • In August 2020, AT&T objected to the FCC’s proposal to require drive tests to verify the accuracy of mobile-coverage maps, complaining that it would be “simply too costly especially at a time when investment in 5G deployment is a top national priority.”
  • On September 8, 2020, the same day Stankey’s essay in Politico was published, AT&T told the FCC that the agency should not require additional details to verify the accuracy of propagation models used by mobile carriers to generate coverage maps. AT&T also said the FCC “should not require providers to submit additional coverage maps based on different speed thresholds, cell edge probability or cell loading factors.”

The FCC, which is still finalizing its plan, has good reason to ask for more data to verify carrier submissions. In April, AT&T admitted a mistake in which it falsely reported offering broadband in nearly 3,600 census blocks spread across parts of 20 states. Separately, the FCC found in December that Verizon, T-Mobile, and US Cellular exaggerated their 4G coverage in official filings. These types of mistakes can prevent the FCC from targeting funding to the areas where it’s most needed, and inaccurate data in general can result in ISPs giving potential customers false information about service availability.

More money, please

Besides mapping, other items in Stankey’s game plan could result in the broadband industry getting more money. Stankey noted that “Millions of American families cannot afford or may lack access to” high-speed broadband and that the “homework gap” has left many low-income, minority, and rural students without adequate connectivity.

“Market forces and private companies can’t do it alone because of the lack of return on the significant investment necessary to reach all Americans,” Stankey wrote.

AT&T’s targeting of the most profitable areas has left millions of homes in its 21-state service area without adequate broadband access. AT&T doesn’t want to bring fiber to all those homes that still have copper phone lines, and Stankey thus urged Congress to appropriate broadband funding that would allow fixed wireless access instead of fiber in unserved rural areas.

“[A]s Congress debates earmarking up to $80 billion for rural broadband as part of the next round of pandemic relief, we should give equal weight to wired and wireless options,” Stankey wrote. He also urged the government to avoid “unnecessary regulations [that] will make greater private sector investment less sustainable.” If the United States fails to close its broadband gaps, the fault will lie with the government, not private industry, according to Stankey:

With so many students having to learn virtually this fall, and with so many workers now dependent on home Internet connections to keep their jobs, now is the time for us to work together to ensure all American families have access to critical connectivity and the resources needed to meet the urgent challenges of today and tomorrow. If policymakers fail to act, today’s “homework gap” will not only exacerbate the proverbial “generation gap,” but we will have failed to bridge it.

AT&T has gotten numerous government favors in the Trump era, such as the repeal of net neutrality rules, deregulation of the broadband industry, and a big corporate tax cut. AT&T’s then-CEO Randall Stephenson claimed in November 2017 that AT&T would use a tax cut to create “7,000 jobs of people putting fiber in ground,” but AT&T has since laid off tens of thousands of workers and reduced network spending.

Consumer advocates agree that government should promote broadband deployment, but they propose something more ambitious than AT&T’s call for more funding and less regulation. Noting that big ISPs “fail to deliver universal access but enjoy comfortable monopolies and charge you prices at 200 percent to 300 percent above competitive rates,” Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Legislative Counsel Ernesto Falcon recently wrote in support of a nationwide fiber plan proposed by Democrats:

Even when it is profitable to deliver fiber, the national ISPs have chosen not to do it in exchange for short-term profits. A massive infrastructure program, the kind that helped countries like South Korea become global leaders in broadband, aren’t just desperately needed in the United States, it is a requirement. No other country on planet Earth has made progress in delivering universal fiber without an infrastructure policy of this type.

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