CWA union says AT&T redlines poor communities. California’s stats confirm the pattern, if not the extent

21 October 2020 by Steve Blum
, , , ,

The Communications Workers of America (CWA) – the primary telecoms union in the U.S. – claims that AT&T is doing fiber upgrades in high income communities and redlining low income ones. A white paper published by CWA and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance claims…

The analysis of AT&T’s network reveals that the company is prioritizing network upgrades to wealthier areas, and leaving lower income communities with outdated technologies. Across the country, the median income for households with fiber available is 34 percent higher than in areas with DSL only – $60,969 compared to $45,500. A similar disparity exists for households where AT&T does not meet the FCC speed threshold [of 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload speeds].

In California, AT&T reports providing broadband service in census blocks with a total of 9.6 million homes, according to the most recent data available (which isn’t very recent, it’s current as of 31 December 2018). A (very) rough comparison of median household incomes in AT&T’s California service area shows a smaller, but still significant gap of 6% between the earnings of households where fiber to the premise (FTTP) service is available ($80,000) and where it is not ($76,000) – where only DSL service of one kind or another is offered.

(Caveat: I’m averaging an average, and attributing high level census tract data to low level census blocks. As I said, very rough).

But that gap widens to 23% when the median household incomes of FTTP homes and homes without upgraded DSL service ($65,000) are compared.

AT&T’s systems use three different generations of DSL technology: 1990s legacy DSL, ADSL2 from the early 2000’s (which it’s phasing out) and VDSL, which it began to deploy in the 2010s. The VDSL tech that AT&T deploys is capable of delivering much faster speeds than the older stuff – as much as 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps upload under the right conditions. That’s partly because AT&T has extended its fiber networks closer to homes, and uses copper for the last few hundred meters. AT&T tries to position VDSL as a fiber service and, in fact, it’s not clear whether CWA is following that playbook too.

The median household income in AT&T’s VDSL homes is virtually the same as that in FTTP homes. In other words, the income gap between homes with upgraded service and those left stranded with ageing systems is about $15,000 – 23% – in California.

CWA’s national figure of a 34% gap in household income is more grim, but not far off the numbers I ran for California, if you only look at older DSL technologies. It’s also a pattern that the California Public Utilities Commission has called out, for both AT&T and Frontier Communications.

Statistical analysis provided by a labor union should be treated as sceptically as those coming from a corporation – they both want to make a case that furthers their interests. In this case, though, CWA’s numbers are in the ballpark.