No Longer News – Big Telcos Ignore Copper

In news that falls under the category of ‘why did they even bother’, the California Public Utilities System released a report that details how the big telcos in the state have allowed the copper networks to deteriorate. The report was originally written in 2019, but as tends to happen in California, the telcos were able to quash the report for a few years by claiming it contains proprietary data.

The report is a great, but sad read for anybody that wants to hear the story of the slow death of copper networks. My first reaction on reading the report was to ask why the CPUC is even pretending that it has any regulatory authority over copper networks because AT&T and Frontier largely ignore the Commission on anything related to copper.

This is a report that could have been written in almost any state because copper is dying regardless of whether the telco is AT&T, Frontier, CenturyLink, Windstream, Consolidated, or others. The report is a good reminder that the neglect that is now blamed on Frontier in California was mostly due to Verizon, which owned the copper networks until 2016.

The CPUC documents situations that are familiar to customers on copper networks everywhere. AT&T and Frontier failed to meet the CPUC’s goal of fixing 90% of reported troubles within 24-hours. Amazingly, AT&T reports hitting that goal in 2 out of the 96 months covered by the CPUC report. But even that hides the fairly common practice of telling customers that troubles can’t be fixed and cutting them off the network.

The companies have raised rates on telephone service. AT&T raised rates for landline telephone between 2006 and 2018 from $10.69 to $27, allowing the company to maintain revenue on copper even as demand dropped. Measured rate service, which is supposed to be a lot cheaper for homes that don’t make many calls increased from $5.70 in 2006 to $24.25 in 2018.

The CPUC report also hints that AT&T is likely redlining poorer neighborhoods in areas where it has upgraded to fiber. Areas with fiber have 2010 median household incomes of $72,024 while areas still on copper have household incomes of $60,795. These comparisons are a bit hard to make because AT&T is not converting whole neighborhoods to fiber – just selected small pockets.

Since the report was written the AT&T situation has gotten worse when the company decided in October of 2020 to step selling DSL to new customers. Customers with DSL are allowed to keep service for now, but this means that AT&T is 100% ceding the markets where there is a cable company and is leaving rural households with few broadband options beyond satellite. This has to be a move by AT&T to start the process of walking completely away from copper. Frontier has promised to expand its fiber footprint as a condition for coming out of bankruptcy, but this is likely going to happen in cities, towns, and suburbs and not in rural areas.

It’s time for state regulators to stop the gnashing of teeth over copper networks. The service sucks and is going to get worse and worse until the networks die. If states had any real regulatory authority over copper networks, they’d confiscate them from the telcos and sell them to somebody else for a dollar. Any buyer would do a better job of keeping on the lights than the big telcos – and a buyer would likely use the remaining copper revenues to fund a conversion to fiber.

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