The End of Special Access?

Image representing EarthLink as depicted in Cr...

Image via CrunchBase

For those not familiar with the term, special access refers to selling traditional data pipes on the TDM telecom networks. These are circuits like T1s and DS3s. While one might think the world had transitioned to ethernet circuits there are still huge numbers of these traditional circuits being sold in the world.

In many cases the traditional circuits, especially T1s are being sold because of lack of fiber in the distribution plant. TDS data circuits can still be delivered over copper in many cases and often are the only way for a business stuck on copper to get faster data speeds.

AT&T recently announced that they were going to do away with all of their long-term discounts on these traditional TDM circuits. Customers and other carriers have been used to buying these products with a significant discount for signing up for long periods of time. There have been discounts offered for agreements to buy for up to seven years. And these discounts have teeth since there are significant penalties for breaking the contracts. As of November 9 AT&T will not be signing any contracts with terms longer than three years.

AT&T says the reason they are doing away with the discounts is due to the fact that they are going to be discontinuing TDS special access by 2020. However, that rings untrue since somebody can still sign a 5-year or 7-year contract today and still have that contract finished on or before 2020.

Some of the competitors of AT&T filed a letter of complaint with the FCC this month complaining about the cessation of the term discounts. This included Sprint, tw telecom, CBeyond, EarthLink, Level3 and Megapath. These carriers say that eliminating the discounts is anticompetitive since they are the in direct competition with AT&T and they are the primary purchasers of special access circuits.

Sprint says that eliminating the term discounts will increase the prices they pay and ultimately affect what customers pay. They say that in the worst case examples that their costs will rise 24%.

If you have been following this blog I have reported that AT&T has been positioning itself to get out of the TDM business. They want to convert all data circuits to ethernet as part of their ‘Project VIP’ initiative. But they also want to get homes and small business off of copper and in many cases replace them with cell phones. The FCC has not given AT&T the permission to do this anywhere, yet they keep moving towards that goal.

The biggest problem I see with trying to eliminate TDM data circuits, particularly T1s, is that the customers who use them often are in parts of the network that don’t have fiber alternatives. It’s nice for AT&T to be able to talk about offering only ethernet, but in many cases this is going to result in customers losing what little data they are able to buy today.

There are still huge numbers of T1s that are used to support PBXs and small company WANs for functions like data back-up. It’s hard to picture what a customer will do if the copper goes away and they are expected to somehow perform those functions using cellular data – with data plans that are likely to be capped. We tend to think of a T1 these days as a small data pipe. But if you are using it for data backup, a T1 can transmit a lot of data during a month’s time.

The FCC is in the middle right now of looking at special access issues. They have issued a request for data from the industry that will hopefully help them understand the state of the current TDM data market. I think they are going to find that the market is still a lot larger than AT&T wants them to think.

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