Study Shows California Telcos Are Simply Letting Their Networks Fall Apart
from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept
On the one hand, it’s understandable that US phone companies companies don’t want to maintain aging copper phone networks in the wake of sagging usage. On the other hand, traditional phone networks are very much still in use (especially among vulnerable elderly populations), many of these DSL lines remain the only option consumers can get thanks to spotty US broadband deployment, and much of the phone and DSL infrastructure was heavily subsidized by American taxpayers. Oh, and as Texas just realized, many of these older copper phone lines still work during disasters, when internet voice services don’t.
As such, there are numerous regulations that prevent these companies from just severing these lines completely. But US telcos, tired of traditional phone and residential broadband service, want to shift focus. So instead of a responsible transition plan (one that might mandate even coverage of wireless or fiber broadband upgrades they don’t want to perform), many of these companies are simply letting the networks fall apart. And refusing to repair the lines when they fail. In large part because they know US state and federal regulators will (usually) be to chickenshit to actually do anything about it.
In California, a report requested by the government found the same thing throughout the state. The April 2019 report, only just released after regional incumbents AT&T and Frontier tried to block it, found that as customer rates skyrocketed for both AT&T and Frontier, both companies increasingly cut back on infrastructure upgrades, repairs, and maintenance over the last decade. The report also found that AT&T has increasingly engaged in “redlining,” or the act of failing to meaningfully upgrade lower income and minority communities at the same rate as more affluent neighborhoods:
“…AT&T’s investment policies have tended to favor higher-income communities, and have thus had a disproportionate impact upon the state’s lowest income areas. For example, the weighted average 2010 median annual household income for… areas that had been upgraded with fiber optic feeder facilities to support broadband services was $72,024, vs. only $60,795 for wire centers without such upgrades. Using 2010 US Census data, we find a clear inverse relationship between household income and all of the principal service quality metrics. Wire centers serving areas with the lowest household incomes tend to have the highest trouble report rates, the longest out-of-service durations, the lowest percentages of outages cleared within 24 hours, and the longest times required to clear 90 percent of service outages. The opposite is the case for the highest income communities.”
This lack of reliability of infrastructure, combined with steadily skyrocketing prices, runs in stark contrast to what we should actually be doing in the face of a global pandemic and climate destabilization. And of course it’s far from the first time these two companies have been found to be utterly neglecting their networks. It’s why a 90 year old man just had to take out a $10,000 newspaper ad just to get AT&T to finally upgrade his aging DSL line to fiber. And it’s far worse in places like West Virginia, where Frontier’s apathy toward its own customers (or basic upgrades and maintenance) is fairly legendary.
Again, this is what natural monopolies do in the face of limited competition and regulatory capture. Obtain a regional monopoly, do the bare minimum to keep that business afloat (while you focus on other ambitions like mindless media mergers), then throw a few thousand in PAC donations at local politicians so they pretend that none of this is happening.
The answer now is: what will California regulators actually do about it? And even in one of the most “progressive” states in the nation, the answer will be jack shit. It’s fairly trivial for AT&T and Frontier to simply claim these networks don’t matter because they’re old, or to try (as AT&T does in the link above) to insist any data that suggests they’re anything less than the pinnacle of corporate responsibility is fraudulent.