Are They Really Digital Trials?

A800px-OSU_Bucket_TruckT&T is now doing two ‘digital trials’ in West Del Ray Beach, FL and Carbon Hill, AL. The supposed purpose of these ‘trials’ is see if there is any way to bring all customers onto an all-IP network. But that is bosh. The only purpose of these ‘trials’ is for AT&T to prove to the FCC that it’s okay to kick people off copper networks.

This is all being done as part of the IP transition where we move away from a legacy TDM-based phone network into an Ethernet world. But that transition is supposed to be about the network that is used to move calls from one town to another, and somehow AT&T twisted this to become about moving people off of copper. And it ignores the fact that anybody served by DSL or cable modem is already on an IP and digital network.

AT&T doesn’t want to kick everybody off the copper network. They have their U-Verse products into millions of homes, which requires two pairs of copper. But U-Verse has been sold in large cities and suburbs and not in the small towns like the ones in these tests. It’s apparent in these smaller places that AT&T would rather find a way to force people off the copper than upgrade it.

And this is a bit ironic because for years AT&T has been heavily subsidized to help them pay for the copper wires. They were a rate-of-return carrier, meaning that they were guaranteed for decades to make a profit in each state they operated in. One would have thought that they would have rolled some of those profits back into taking care of the copper wires, and in the metropolitan areas they did. But AT&T walked out of the rural towns many years ago. They closed offices and cut back rural staff and have slowly let those copper networks deteriorate.

So now they want a ‘trial’ to figure out how they can best walk away from rural America. They want to go to all of the small towns on America and force people to move to wireless or move to the cable company. The problem with this idea is that there are a whole lot of rural places where the wireless coverage is awful and where the cable companies have not made any investments also.

A few years ago the FCC had estimated that there was 19 million US households with no broadband. People who work in rural America know that this was a bogus estimate based upon facts fed to them by AT&T and Verizon, and that there are a lot more houses with no broadband. But there has been a lot of effort to get broadband to some of these areas, so one would think that there are fewer households without broadband today, regardless of the actual number.

But if AT&T is allowed to progress past this test and start knocking people off copper there is going to be a whole lot of new homes without broadband. A whole lot more.

I am sure that the FCC has no comprehension of what ‘broadband’ is like in the typical small rural town. The phone company will have first generation DSL that they market at 3 Mbps download (to qualify with the FCC as broadband), but which probably gets half of that. The little town might or might not have a cable company, and even if they do they either don’t offer cable modem or it is also first generation technology and very slow. And you don’t need to go very far outside town until there is no broadband. The cable companies generally stop around the town borders. DSL carries a little further, but since DSL quality decreases with distance, you don’t have to go far until DSL is no better than dial-up.

I have no doubt that AT&T is going to play very nice in these trials. They will find a solution for everybody in these two small towns, even though for many that solution is going to be inferior to what they have today. But then, if the FCC is dumb enough to give them the permission, they are going to mail out notices to millions of homes in small towns and tell them to go find broadband elsewhere.

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