AT&T abandons rural broadband systems as it stops selling 1990s era DSL tech

8 October 2020 by Steve Blum
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AT&T will no longer sell new connections to old school DSL service, although it claims it will continue to support customers who already have it. It notified customers of the change via the last cycle of bill statements. In one respect, it’s a rational and proper decision – AT&T offers much better service via newer technology – but in another respect it’s bad news: wireline networks in rural communities redlined by AT&T haven’t been sufficiently maintained, let alone upgraded, to support modern systems.

In most, if not all, of those redlined communities, AT&T is the monopoly wireline broadband provider, and it is guarding that exclusivity fiercely and aggressively extracting monopoly rents.

Phasing out 1990s DSL service in favor of newer ADSL2 (2000s vintage) and VDSL (2010s) technology makes sense. It’s slow – at best 6 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds – and inefficient. Gaining access to access to the faster speeds offered by newer DSL flavors is good for consumers and businesses.

If they can get it.

It’s a big if. Deploying ADSL2 and, particularly, VDSL service means upgrading copper networks that have been decaying for decades in many rural communities in California. It also means pushing fiber deeper into those networks, to handle the increased traffic and to compensate for the shorter ranges associated with modern systems. One advantage of older DSL technology is that it is robust enough to travel (relatively) long distances over crappy wires. The newer stuff is more finicky.

Going by what AT&T has said in the past, and claims to have done in an increasing number of rural communities, ADSL and VDSL upgrades won’t be its solution. Instead, expect more aggressive deployment and selling of low speed, limited capacity wireless service, i.e. its so called wireless local loop technology, which pushes connections based on 4G technology through a small slice of dedicated spectrum to homes and businesses that can receive it.

AT&T has been on this path for many years. It based its successful 2015 bid for federal broadband subsidies on wireless local loop service, and it tried and failed to get the California legislature to give it permission rip out copper networks that no longer meet its return on investment goals and to block regulation of modern systems. But it did convince lawmakers to end an attempt to improve rural broadband service in California this year.