AT&T in the News

AT&T has not been in the headlines a lot this year, but recently I’ve seen the company’s name everywhere.

In the recently released financial results for the third quarter, AT&T noted that it now has more fiber broadband customers than non-fiber customers. At the end of the quarter, AT&T had 6.93 million fiber customers compared to 6.86 million remaining non-fiber customers. Non-fiber customers are predominantly U-Verse customers served by two pairs of telephone copper. The company still also has 340,000 DSL customers served by a single copper pair. There are also some rural fixed-wireless customers.

In the third quarter, AT&T added 338,000 fiber customers. The company lost 367,000 non-fiber customers in the second quarter – although counting them as lost is probably a misnomer since many were likely upgraded to fiber.

Upgrading to fiber is good for the company’s bottom line. For the quarter, the average revenue per user (ARPU) was $62.62 for fiber customers compared to only $54.60 for non-fiber customers. AT&T has also been saying for years that the cost of maintenance for copper is a lot higher, so the company is likely shedding costs as it sheds customers served on copper.

We also got a peek at market AT&T’s penetration. AT&T says it passes 18.5 million potential customers with fiber, meaning the company has achieved an overall 37% market penetration on fiber. In the third quarter, the company added fiber to pass 500,000 new locations.

I saw another interesting news blurb about AT&T. Bloomberg reported that AT&T is looking for an equity partner to invest in a major expansion of fiber. That would be a big departure from the past since AT&T has always funded its own capital expenditures and networks.

But it’s not hard to see from the third quarter results why AT&T might be seeking additional funding. In the third quarter, the company generated $9.87 billion of cash. It invested $4.71 billion in new infrastructure and paid $3.75 billion in dividends – leaving only $1.41 billion in free cash.

I would conjecture that AT&T wants to invest more heavily in fiber immediately since it’s clear that there is a mad rush nationwide to build fiber in cities. Fiber overbuilders hope that if they are the first to a market with fiber that it might dissuade other fiber overbuilders – so we are currently seeing a fiber land grab. In the long run, sharing fiber profits with an investor will decrease future AT&T earnings. The calculus that the company is betting on is that the market share gained by building first to markets outweighs the cost of sharing profits.

AT&T is currently debt-heavy. AT&T hasn’t had a recent track record of making good investment decisions. It’s been reported that AT&T lost as much as $50 billion from its purchase of DirecTV. In almost the same time frame, the company lost as much as $42 billion from its purchase and sale of WarnerMedia. The company might not be able to easily borrow the money, particularly at current interest rates.

The final news is that AT&T was fined $23 million to resolve a federal investigation that the company had “unlawfully influenced” the former Illinois Speaker of the House, Michael J. Madigan. AT&T admits that it paid Madigan, through an ally, to promote legislation that would eliminate carrier of last resort in the state – meaning that the company is obligated to serve people who ask for a telephone line. That obligation also comes with legacy regulatory requirements that AT&T wanted to ditch.

What always dismays me, but never surprises me, is that nobody at a big company like AT&T got in trouble for breaking the law – in this case, bribing a government official. The size of the fine might be appropriate for the magnitude of the crime, but I’ve always thought that the folk at big companies would be more likely to hesitate to be unethical if they saw others going to jail for breaking the law. The only real consequence for AT&T, in this case, is that they got caught, and the fine will just be viewed as the cost of doing business.

Regulating Hidden Fees

Some of the big telcos and almost every large cable company uses what the industry calls hidden fees. These are fees that are not mentioned when advertising for a service but are put onto customer bills. The cable companies have the most egregious fees, in many cases over $20 per month for new video subscribers.

There is a class action lawsuit in California that shows why ISPs are not worried about using hidden fees. In times past, when the big companies were regulated, they might have been ordered to make a 100% refund of a fee that regulators decided was questionable. But the only realistic remedy against ISPs that misbill customers is a class action lawsuit or the rare ruling against a single ISP by the Federal Trade Commission.

There has been a class action lawsuit in California about the ‘administrative fee’ that AT&T charges to wireless customers. That fee started at $1 per month in 2013 and was raised to $1.99 in 2018. There is no basis for this fee – it’s just a portion of the cost of service split off into a separate charge. This lets AT&T advertise rates for $2 less than the actual fee charged to customers. Somebody buying a $60 advertised plan will actually pay $61.99 because of this fee.

The Verge reported earlier this summer that AT&T and the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit reached an agreed settlement, and AT&T is refunding $14 million to California wireless subscribers who make a claim. The class action lawsuit claimed that AT&T billed the fee without notifying the public or advertising the fee. But even in agreeing to the settlement, AT&T refused to admit any wrongdoing and says it fully disclosed all fees.

This award shows why big carriers can bill hidden fees with impunity. The typical settlement for a customer that makes a claim under this lawsuit will be between $15 and $29, which is far less than the average amount of this fee collected by AT&T in California at $180 per subscriber. The worst part of the settlement is that AT&T will continue to bill the fee, so they’ll recover any settlement from customers over the next year. AT&T also knows that most eligible customers won’t make a claim. It was reported that AT&T notified customers of the possible claim by text – which many people assume is spam. The settlement only applies to California customers and not folks in the rest of the country. This is a minuscule slap on the wrist to AT&T.

Class action lawsuits are not a great tool for punishing bad behavior by carriers. Lawyers taking on these issues are taking a big chance that they will lose. Anybody filing such a suit has to spend a lot of time on discovery, made worse because carriers will typically drown plaintiffs with mountains of documents in response to data requests. The lawyers employed by large corporations are generally the best around, and many class action suits never reach completion. In this case, the class action lawyers will receive $3.5 million from the settlement – but they likely spent a lot of money over many years to get the case to a settlement.

The real solution to holding ISPs accountable is strong regulation. In an ideal world, the FCC or the California Public Utilities Commission would have ordered a full refund to customers that were harmed by misdeeds by a carrier. I didn’t do the research in writing this blog, but I assume that neither regulatory body felt it had that authority in this instance – or else they chose not to take it on. That’s certainly not surprising on the Federal side since the FCC under Ajit Pai prided itself on a shift to light-touch regulation – which is a euphemism for basically no regulation at all. When I broke into the industry in the 1970s, regulators would have made a carrier rebate every cent of an overbilling, so carriers were cautious about trying something like the administrative fee.

It is within the purview of the Federal Trade Commission to tackle this sort of issue, but the agency only has the manpower to pursue a limited number of cases against bad behavior of industries of all types. Companies like AT&T know that the risk of having an issue like this brought before the FTC is tiny. And even if it happened, the company would not likely have to return all of the improperly charged fees.

Hidden fees are an interesting issue because it’s clear that hidden fees give carriers a marketing edge when competing against companies that don’t have hidden fees. The intent of carriers is to hide the fees or at least make it hard for a prospective customer to know about the fees. The issue with hidden fees is not that a company divides a fee for service into several pieces – it’s that the full fees are not disclosed. ISPs and carriers are not the only ones using hidden fees, and President Biden said last month that the administration is going to crack down on hidden fees from the airline and travel industry.

Cable Company Cellular Growing

Cable companies are starting to quietly build a significant cellular business to bundle with broadband and other products. Consider the most recent customer count from the eight largest U.S. cellular carriers:

Verizon 143.0 M
T-Mobile 110.2 M
AT&T 101.6 M
Dish 8.5 M
US Cellular 4.9 M
Comcast 4.6 M
Charter 4.3 M
C-Spire 1.2 M

It’s worth noting that AT&T has over 200 million cellular customers worldwide, which makes them the eleventh largest cellular carrier in the world, with China Mobile first with over 851 million customers.

Comcast’s Xfinity Mobile added 317,000 customers in the second quarter of this year to bring the company to a total of 4.6 million customers. Comcast mostly uses the Verizon network to complete calls. However, Comcast demonstrates the major benefit of a cable company being in the cellular business since the company is able to offload a large portion of its outgoing mobile traffic to its WiFi network. Comcast has been experimenting with the use of 600 MHz spectrum to carry some of its cellular traffic. The company purchased $1.7 billion of spectrum in the 2017 incentive auction that freed up spectrum formerly used by television channels. Comcast also purchased $458 million of CBRS spectrum in 2020. The company says it may selectively offload traffic onto licensed spectrum in places where that is cheaper than buying wholesale minutes.

Charter’s Spectrum Mobile added 344,000 mobile customers in the second quarter of the year to bring the company to 4.3 million customers. Spectrum also uses the Verizon network. Charter purchased $464 million of PAL licenses in the CBRS spectrum in 2020. Charter says it intends to place its own radios in high-traffic areas where that will save money. Charter’s CEO Brian Roberts said a few months ago that Charter saw $700 million in new revenues from cellular over the past twelve months.

Altice has been selling mobile services branded as Optimum Mobile for several years and added 33,000 customers in the second quarter, bringing the company to 231,000 total mobile customers. Altice uses the T-Mobile network.

Cox announced the launch of a mobile pilot program on August 29, launching Cox Mobile in Hampton Roads, Virginia, Omaha, Nebraska, and Las Vegas.

All of these companies have a huge potential upside. For example, the mobile customer penetration rate for both Comcast and Charter is under 10%, and both companies believe they can become major mobile players in their markets.

The cable companies face an unusual marketing challenge since each cable company is only in selected urban markets, meaning that a lot of nationwide advertising goes to waste.

The primary reason that Comcast first entered the mobile market was to develop another product that would create a stickier bundle. Comcast figured it would be hard for a customer to leave if that meant finding a new cellular carrier along with a new ISP. Cable companies are still only selling to their own broadband customers, which is a good indication bundling is still a key reason for doing this. It’s also less costly to sell cellular to households that can offload cellular traffic to the cable company broadband network.

The big three cellular carriers have continued to grow in recent years, but the cable companies have definitely made a dent in the market with almost ten million retail mobile customers. The real test for the cellular industry is going to come when Dish finally gets its act together and offers low-cost mobile service in most markets. That’s going to put price pressure on everybody else. If Dish starts a price war, as promised, we’re going to see a real shake-up.

 

 

Big Telcos and the BEAD Grants

We’re finally starting to gain a picture of the plans of the big telcos for the upcoming BEAD grants. The bottom line is that some of the big telcos seem to be prepared to pursue the upcoming grants in a major way. Consider the following:

  • At a recent industry conference, Frontier’s CFO said that Frontier has ambitious plans to pursue grants for all of the three to four million rural homes that it serves today with DSL.
  • When the BEAD grants were first announced, AT&T added five million new passings to its goal for 2025, all due to pursuing rural grants. AT&T hasn’t said much about grants since that early announcement.
  • Brightspeed, which purchased twenty states of copper networks from CenturyLink, has made it clear that it will be seeking state and federal grants to build as much fiber as possible. CenturyLink has been aggressively pursuing grants in the states sold to Brightspeed, for the obvious benefit of the new company.
  • Windstream was a big winner in the RDOF reverse auction and has been aggressively pursuing ARPA funding. It seems obvious that the company will also pursue BEAD grants.

The two big telcos that have not said much about grants are CenturyLink and Verizon. There are rumors that CenturyLink is seeking somebody to buy the rest of its copper lines, but it also would not be surprising to see the company come out swinging for grant funding if a sale isn’t forthcoming. Verizon abandoned a rural strategy years ago, and it would be surprising but not impossible to see the company tackle grant funding if the math is good.

The other big ISP that has aggressively been pursuing grant funding is Charter. It would make sense for the company to pursue BEAD grants to fill in around where it has already won the RDOF auctions.

This is an interesting dilemma for rural communities. The telcos all say they will be building rural fiber with grant funding – which is what rural America most desires. But a lot of rural folks blame the big telcos for the current miserable state of rural broadband. It’s the big telcos that stopped maintaining copper, reduced staffing drastically, and basically walked away from rural America. I know a lot of folks who hope that anybody other than the big telcos wins the grant funding in their area.

There are several big fears that I hear voiced about the big telcos winning the grant funding. One is that the big telcos will not follow through after winning the grant funding. Many communities remember how some of these telcos walked away with huge amounts of CAF II funding without doing the promised DSL upgrades. I think the fear is that the big telcos might cut corners and not build to the most remote households in a grant award area. I’ve also heard the fear that the big telcos will accept grants and then decide not to build some areas in a state.

Perhaps the biggest fear about big telcos building rural fiber networks is that we’ll see a repeat of the past. They will build the new network as funded. But if the telcos don’t hire enough technicians or cut corners on maintenance, the fiber networks will deteriorate over time.

This is a real concern because there is a big difference between copper networks and fiber networks. It’s been possible to keep a copper network limping along for decades with minimum maintenance. This is due to the relative simplicity of the DSL technology. There are twenty-year-old DSL cards still limping along, long past the expected economic life. But fiber networks are not likely to be so tolerant. Fiber technology is complicated and precise, and when a card starts going bad, it most commonly means the fiber will go dark. I think the big fear in rural America is that the big telcos will build fiber but let it go dark in 10 or 15 years if they can’t get additional subsidies. This is an impossible scenario to imagine the big telcos demanding future subsidies to keep networks working.

One of the most important aspects of the BEAD grants will be community approval and partnerships with the grant applicants. It will be curious to see if the big telcos seriously court local support for grant applications or do little more than ask for a letter of support when it’s time to file grants. If a community really wants to keep out the big telcos, the best strategy is to partner with somebody you trust more.

The CHIPS Act and Wireless

The recently enacted CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 is providing a lot of funding to bring more chip manufacturing back to the U.S. This funding fills a big hole in the U.S. supply chain. We have some chip manufacturing in the U.S., but we only make about 12% of the chips that we use in cellphones, cars, computers, and broadband technology.

Making domestic chips became a national priority when we saw during the pandemic that international chipmakers took care of regional demand before U.S. demand. U.S. automakers are still largely on hold due to a lack of chips, and there has been a rumor floating around the broadband industry that we’re going to see another round of chip shortages for broadband gear. It will take some years to turn this new funding into chip factories, but in the long run, this is one of the more sensible things Congress has done in many years.

The CHIPs Act approved $52 billion to bring chip manufacturing back to the U.S. But like all big legislation, not all of the money appropriated goes to the main goal. For example, there is funding in the bill for new research and development in the technical sciences. Today’s blog looks at funding from the CHIPs Act that is being used for the mobile industry. Specifically, the CHIPS legislation:

Appropriates $1.5 billion for the Public Wireless Supply Chain Innovation Fund, to spur movement towards open-architecture, software-based wireless technologies, funding innovative, ‘leap-ahead’ technologies in the U.S. mobile broadband market. The fund would be managed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), with input from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Department of Homeland Security, and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, among others.

This sounds like funding for wireless product research to find new market uses for 5G. I’m a big believer that the federal government should have a large role in funding basic science research and development. One of the reasons that the U.S. has had technological success in the past is that we funded the basic research that has made the breakthroughs that turned into our current technology industries. National funding for pure research has fallen in recent years to woefully low levels.

But I’m not a big fan of the U.S. government undertaking product research. That is something that ought to be left to the industries that will benefit from the research. This $1.5 billion feels like a handout to the big wireless companies – and they don’t need this money.

Consider dividends. Verizon paid out $10.4 billion in dividends to stockholders in 2021, or almost $2.50 for every outstanding share. In recent shareholder meetings, the company says the goal is to increase dividends in the coming years. AT&T most recently paid $8 billion per year in dividends or $1.11 per share in recent quarters.

T-Mobile is the most cash-flush of the big cellular carriers and told shareholders earlier this year that the company plans to spend $60 billion by the end of 2025 to buy back its own stock.

These three companies don’t need a $1.5 billion government handout, but as often happens, the industries that lobby the hardest often get rewarded with funding. If the $1.5 billion is spent wisely, it might turn into future profits for these companies. But this is research that these companies should be routinely funding directly.

This feels like a residual benefit to these companies from all of the effort they put into persuading the government that we were losing an imaginary 5G war with China. That discussion is still not completely dead, and we still occasionally hear a politician talking about our 5G crisis.

I love the concept behind the CHIPS Act, and I hope it spurs 100,000 new permanent manufacturing jobs and greatly expands the domestic chip supply. But I am not a fan when big legislation is used to pay back industries that spend huge money to lobby politicians.

Here Comes FWA

Broadband industry statistics have been compiled by the Leichtman Research Group which provides an interesting new narrative for the industry. The biggest ISPs added just over one million new broadband customers in the first quarter of 2022, but half of the new customers went to the FWA products from Verizon and T-Mobile.

FWA stands for Fixed Wireless Access and is home broadband delivered using cellular frequencies. T-Mobile and Verizon are aggressively marketing the product, which is touted to have download speeds over 100 Mbps. The market is going to get hotter when Dish gets its launch underway soon. AT&T has also been promising a major new marketing effort to sell the product.

 1Q 2022 1Q Change % Change
Comcast 32,163,000 262,000 0.8%
Charter 30,274,000 185,000 0.6%
AT&T 15,533,000 29,000 0.2%
Verizon 7,400,000 35,000 0.5%
Cox 5,560,000 30,000 0.5%
Lumen 4,470,000 (49,000) -1.1%
Altice 4,373,200 (13,000) -0.3%
Frontier 2,819,000 20,000 0.7%
Mediacom 1,468,000 5,000 0.3%
Windstream 1,176,000 11,300 1.0%
Cable ONE 1,057,000 11,000 1.1%
T-Mobile FWA 984,000 338,000 52.3%
Breezeline 719,608 2,830 0.4%
TDS 495,200 4,900 1.0%
Verizon FWA 433,000 194,000 81.2%
Consolidated 380,150 (850) -0.2%
   Total 109,305,158 1,065,180 1.0%
Total Cable 75,614,808 482,830 0.6%
Total Telco 32,273,350 50,350 0.2%
FWA 1,417,000 532,000 60.1%

FWA was originally touted as the replacement for rural DSL. However, both T-Mobile and Verizon report having success selling the product in urban areas and competing with cable companies. This means that FWA success is going to bring down customer counts for other ISPs.

Over the past several years, Comcast and Charter have been accounting for most of the growth in broadband customers. In the first quarter, the two FWA providers and Comcast and Charter together account for 92% of net increases in broadband customers.

There are some interesting numbers inside this report.

  • Frontier has clearly turned it around after steady losses for several years and saw growth of 0.7% for the quarter.
  • The big loser is now Lumen, which lost over 1% of its broadband customers in the quarter.
  • We know that AT&T has been selling fiber connections at a hot pace but is still seeing significant losses of DSL customers to net out at a small positive growth.
  • The biggest percentage gainer among landline companies for the quarter is CABLE ONE, with quarterly growth of 1.1%.
  • Altice continues to struggle and lost broadband customers for the quarter.

The Upcoming Marketing Wars

In April 2019 my daughter and I were watching the NCAA final between Virginia and Texas Tech (and rooting for her school TTU). We noticed about halfway through the game that practically every ad we had seen was about 5G. Verizon was busy showing us speed tests from millimeter-wave cellphones receiving gigabit speeds. Not to be outdone, there were a ton of commercials also from T-Mobile and AT&T.

I found it extraordinary that the cellular carriers would spend that much money to buy premium-rate ads for a major sports event. We now know this was part of an all-out blitz on 5G to put pressure on Congress and the FCC to give them more spectrum.

I think that by this fall we’re going to wish we could go back to the 2019 level of ads because I’m predicting by this fall that all we’re going to hear about is cellular and broadband. A lot has changed in the industry since 2019. In more recent sporting events, I noticed that a lot of the ads were from the cable companies touting low-cost cellular service. The cable companies view bundling with cellular as one of the best ways to retain broadband customers – bundling means that when a customer drops broadband they will also lose cheap cellular service.

Dish network will be hitting the market sometime this summer, promising a rollout in a hundred smaller markets and 25 large markets in June. The company already owns Boost Mobile, but Dish is going to spend a lot of money to convince America to consider it for cellular service. This means mountains of advertising to make us aware that Dish is now a cellular company. Dish promises to be aggressive with pricing, so expect this advertising effort to set off a price war from the other carriers.

T-Mobile has already been blitzing the air this year in an attempt to sell its cellular broadband product. The company picked up 400,000 new cellular broadband customers in 2021, most at the end of the year. T-Mobile has a goal to pick up several million new broadband customers this year. T-Mobile’s ultimate goal is to reach 6 to 7 million FWA customers by 2025.

Verizon is also selling fixed wireless broadband and plans to hit the market hard later this summer. The company has a goal to reach 4 to 5 million FWA customers by 2025.

AT&T isn’t going to hit the national market with a push for FWA until some time in 2023, but there is no way that the company is going to sit by and watch the other cellular carriers lure away its customers. Expect AT&T to also be on the air nonstop.

It’s hard to think that national advertising this fall will be much more than cellular and political ads. I’m warning you now to find an outdoor hobby if you don’t want to hear any more about 5G.

We’re also going to see an unprecedented marketing blitz from cable companies and fiber overbuilders. All of the big telcos are furiously building fiber this year. There are aggressive plans to build fiber underway from AT&T, Verizon, Frontier, Windstream, Consolidated, Ziply, Lumen, and many smaller fiber builders. Much of the construction this year will be in cities and county seats, and that is going to mean a whole lot of advertising.

We’ve not seen a lot of national advertising about home broadband, and the marketing wars will likely be local. That’s going to translate to salespeople knocking on doors and a lot of mailers about fiber broadband.

There was some unexpected growth in cellular customers last year. For example, in the third quarter of last year, there was a net addition of 2.3 million new nationwide cellular customers. Industry analysts are chalking this up to businesses buying cell phones for remote employees and more students buying phones because of remote learning during the pandemic.

This kind of market growth is not sustainable since most people have cell phones. That means that the coming cellular marketing wars will largely be a zero-sum game. The only way for a cellular company to grow will be to take customers from another carrier. That’s going to lead to some real desperation – and even more ads. When you watch the first football game this fall, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

What Happened to AirGig?

You might remember press releases from AT&T in 2018 that promised a revolution in rural broadband from a technology called AirGig. The technology was described as using millimeter-wave spectrum to shoot focused radio beams along power lines, with the electric field of the powerlines somehow acting to keep the transmissions focused to follow the wires.

AT&T said at the time that the technology could deliver hundreds of megabits of data to rural homes using a network built from inexpensive plastic components mounted on power lines. The last I heard of the technology was this AT&T video released in 2019.

There had been a field trial of the technology conducted with Georgia Power, and the CEO of the electric company was enthusiastic at the time about the technology. AT&T talked about starting the process of manufacturing hardware. And then . . . crickets. There hasn’t been a word on the web about the technology since then.

I saw articles published by IEEE in 2019 that talked about a different broadband-over-powerline (BPS) technology developed by Panasonic. IEEE amended the standard for BPL to recognize Panasonic’s HD-PLC technology. Panasonic claims to have reached 60 Mbps transmissions using the technology but thought they could goose this to several hundred Mbps.

I always wondered how much of the AT&T announcement on AirGig was hype. Timing-wise, the AT&T AirGig announcement came in the middle of the 5G craze where the cellular carriers were trying to gain major concessions from the government to promote 5G. AT&T and the other carriers wanted a lot more spectrum – and they’ve largely gotten it. Perhaps they were using the AirGig to justify more spectrum. But the video shows that AT&T has gotten a pile of patents for the technology, so it seems to be the real deal.

Today’s blog asked what happened, and I hope somebody who knows will say. Did field trials reveal a fatal flaw in the technology? That’s always possible with any wireless technology. Did the technology just underperform and not deliver the promised broadband speeds? Or will AT&T spring a finished technology on the world one of these days?

AT&T to Chop Copper Networks

In a pronouncement that is news to nobody, AT&T announced at a recent investor day event that it has plans to cut its copper network footprint in half by 2025. This can’t be a surprise from a company that stopped connecting new DSL customers in October 2020. I figured we could start the countdown clock on copper from that date.

However, Jeff McElfish, the CEO of AST&T’s Communications division, said something that is surprising. He said the company isn’t planning to forcibly move customers off copper as they decommission copper. He says customers are naturally migrating off copper. I find that hard to believe.

My consulting firm administers surveys, and we are still seeing DSL penetration rates in cities between 10% and 40%. Our surveys indicate that the people who are staying with DSL are doing so because of price – they largely hate DSL performance, but it’s what they can afford. This is not hard to understand when looking at the rates for broadband from the big cable companies.

In this blog, I’ve often talked about how expensive broadband is from Comcast and Charter, but broadband rates from some of the other cable companies like Cox and Atlantic Broadband are even higher. There are a lot of homes that can’t afford the cable company prices. It’s hard for me to believe that all of these people are going to voluntarily walk away from DSL over the next two or three years. The last estimate I vaguely remember reading was that there is still something like 19 million households still using DSL.

McElfish said AT&T plans to have 75% of its footprint covered by fiber or fixed cellular wireless by 2025 – I have to assume that in terms of square miles of footprint that this will mostly be wireless. AT&T is going to have a PR problem with trying to push customers to wireless. For rural customers within reach of a tower, a switch from DSL to fixed cellular wireless will be a no-brainer. The broadband speeds will be faster, and the price still affordable. But the big problem in rural markets is that there are huge parts of rural America where fixed wireless won’t work. The rural cellular coverage maps for all three big cellular companies are a joke, and anybody who drives into rural areas can see that you don’t usually have to go far to run out of bars of service. It’s worth noting that cellular voice covers a much larger footprint than cellular data. At some point, AT&T will have to drop rural DSL customers who might have no other alternative than satellite broadband. Extrapolating from McElfish’s statement of covering 75% of the footprint means that AT&T will be abandoning folks in 25% of its footprint.

Urban areas are a bigger issue for AT&T because that’s where most of the DSL customers remain. It’s clear that AT&T has no goal of overbuilding whole cities with fiber but is building in selected neighborhoods. It’s not clear if those neighborhoods are chosen due to the most affordable construction costs or the best demographics – but AT&T will not be building fiber to cover the majority of its footprint in most cities.

With today’s 4G LTE technology that’s been branded as 5G, AT&T is not prepared to deliver fixed cellular broadband to huge numbers of people in cities. That’s what 5G is supposed to fix, and it’s not here yet. But even when AT&T finally implements real 5G (estimated to be 5 – 7 years in the future), the company would have to install a huge number of small cell sites to have enough broadband capacity to migrate DSL customers to fixed cellular broadband. And that means building more fiber deep into neighborhoods to serve the small cell sites. None of that is happening by 2025, so AT&T must be planning on turning down rural copper markets first.

Perhaps AT&T is really counting on everybody else to pick up its DSL customers. T-Mobile is already aggressively rolling out fixed cellular broadband, and Verizon plans a big push starting in late summer of this year. Dish plans to open 25 major markets with cellular data by June. Smaller wireless player like Starry might be making a dent by 2025.

AT&T is ultimately going to have to force people off DSL. The download speeds on much urban DSL are not dreadful, at 15 – 30 Mbps, although upload speeds are nonexistent. I don’t see millions of people voluntarily abandoning the product so that AT&T can tear down the copper without a public stir.

But maybe there is another motive behind this – as the technicians who understand DSL keep retiring, AT&T might not be able to keep DSL running by 2025. I know that sounds cynical, but I don’t think it’s far from the truth.

Truth in Broadband Advertising

We’re all used to crazy advertising about telecom products that make industry folks shake their heads – many of the ads about 5G come to mind. Most people don’t realize that carriers in the industry routinely challenge the claims made by competitors to force them to modify or drop deceptive ads.

Most of the largest corporations in the country belong to the National Advertising Division (NAD), which is part of the BBB National Programs and arbitrates disputes about advertising between participants in the plan. Participation is voluntary, but corporations join the effort because the arbitration process through NAD is far cheaper than using the courts to settle disputes. Corporations almost always comply with the recommendations of NAD. The NAD monitors national advertising campaigns in all media and tries to enforce standards of truth and accuracy – a high standard for advertising.

Charter recently challenged advertising that claimed AT&T’s business broadband services on fiber are better than business broadband services provided by cable companies. It was an interesting challenge because Charter disputed a number of the claims made by AT&T in the ads.

In the first dispute, AT&T claimed it was ‘up to 20 times faster’ than cable broadband. NAB agreed that the upload speeds on AT&T’s gigabit product are up to 20 times faster than a gigabit product from the cable companies but found that AT&T’s wording of the claim made it sound like all AT&T products are 20 times faster than the equivalent cable company broadband products.

AT&T also claimed that its prices are half the price of cable broadband. The NAB found that the prices for AT&T’s top business products are half the price of the equivalent products from the cable companies but again sided with Charter because it said that the AT&T ad made it sound like all AT&T broadband products are half the price of cable company broadband.

The AT&T ads made the claim that AT&T’s fiber broadband is superior to cable company broadband. NAB found that while there was a big difference in upload speeds between the two products that the download speeds from both technologies are equivalent. NAB felt that most business customers care more about download speed than upload speed and sided against AT&T’s claim that its broadband is superior.

AT&T ads claimed that the upload speeds of cable companies are insufficient to support video conference, surging, streaming, and gaming and the NAB said there was not enough evidence to support that claim. NAD did support AT&T’s claim that fiber is superior for uploading large files.

In the ruling that will rile fiber fans, the NAD said the record did not substantiate a claim that AT&T fiber provides ‘better internet’ than cable broadband. But the NAD supported AT&T’s claim that it provides a consistent speed, even at peak times.

AT&T told the NAD that it respectfully disagreed with all of the negative findings, but the company agreed to stop using the disputed claims. I would guess that AT&T will continue to make many of these claims but will be more specific and less generic.

Many of you might not realize that the big ISPs also often challenge advertising claims made by municipal and other smaller ISPs. Such complaints generally come from counsel for the big ISPs and demand that a smaller ISP stop the disputed advertising. The process is threatening since small ISPs don’t want to engage in expensive legal disputes. I’ve known a few small ISPs that ignored such claims and were never sued, but I don’t know that there is any way to know the motivation of a big ISP in a given complaint. One of my clients who ignored such a claim said that fighting with the big ISP in the papers over an issue was the best advertising he could ever have wished for.