AT&T confirms plans to replace California copper service with wireless

14 September 2016 by Steve Blum
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Copper sunset.

AT&T will spend $360 million earmarked for broadband service improvements in rural California on fixed wireless broadband service and not on upgrading or maintaining existing wireline networks. That was the message from Alice Perez, an AT&T staff lobbyist, to the Eldorado County board of supervisors yesterday (h/t to Fred Pilot at the Eldo Telecom blog for the heads up). Nationwide, AT&T is getting a total of $2.6 billion in federal Connect America Fund (CAF) subsidies over six years to upgrade broadband speeds in predominantly rural areas.

In the first rollout presentation that I’ve watched of what AT&T has called wireless local loop technology, Perez said that it’ll support 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload speeds, which meets the federal CAF standard, but fails to meet California’s minimum standard of 1.5 Mbps on the upload side. And it falls far short of the federal advanced services minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speeds.

She also alluded to replacing wireline telephone service with mobile phone technology – “VoLTE-based telephone service”, as one of her slides put it.

Consistent with AT&T’s past descriptions of WLL service, Perez positioned it as a bolt-on to existing cell sites, which is presumably where the voice over LTE based phone service would come from. In response to a question from supervisor Shiva Frentzen, Perez claimed that “this is not fiber funding”. That’s not true: CAF subsidies can be spent on any technology capable of meeting the 10 down/1 up standard. If AT&T isn’t spending it on fiber, it’s by choice.

Actually, even in rural California, I expect some of the money will go toward fiber back haul connections to cell towers, particularly the new ones that Perez said would be necessary. Her pitch ended with a plea for rapid approval of permits for the work, which met with a generally sympathetic response from supervisors and staff.

None of this comes as a surprise. AT&T executives have been talking about WLL for more than two years, and they made it clear in last year’s acceptance of CAF money that they intend to spend it on wireless broadband and not upgrades to copper systems.

Earlier this year, AT&T mounted a full court lobbying press to convince the California legislature to allow it to remove wireline service from less profitable rural and inner city communities. That effort failed, for the time being anyway. But given this new push to overbuild rural systems with fixed wireless service, it’s clear that AT&T intends to move forward with its plan to yank out its copper networks, regardless.

UPDATE: I’ve posted the video of the presentation on YouTube. You can click to see it here.