The Regulatory Struggle to Maintain Copper Networks

The California Public Utilities Commission has been investigating the quality of service performance on the telco networks operated by AT&T and Frontier. The agency hired the consulting firm Economics and Technology, Inc. to investigate numerous consumer complaints made against the two telcos. Thanks go to Steve Blum for following this issue in his blog.

Anybody who still has service on the two carriers will not be surprised by the findings. The full study findings have not yet been released by the CPUC, but the portions that have been made public are mostly what would be expected.

For example, the report shows a correlation between household incomes in neighborhoods and the quality of service. As an example, the average household incomes are higher in neighborhoods where AT&T has replaced copper with fiber. More striking is a correlation between service calls and household income. The annual frequency of repair calls is double for neighborhoods where the average household income is $42,000 per year or less compared to neighborhoods with household incomes of $88,000 or more.

Part of that difference is likely because more high-income neighborhoods have fiber, which has fewer problems and generally requires less maintenance. But there are also hints in the report that this might be due to economic redlining where higher-income neighborhoods get a higher priority from AT&T.

This is not the first time that AT&T has been accused of redlining. I wrote a blog a few years ago about a detailed study made in Dallas, Texas that showed a direct correlation between the technology being delivered and household incomes. That study followed up on a similar report from Cleveland, Ohio, and the same things could likely be said for the older telco networks in almost every big city.

The big telcos are in a rough spot. The older copper networks have largely outlived their economic lives and are full of problems. Over the years copper pairs of wire in the outdoor cables have gone bad and the remaining number of working copper pairs decreases each year. The electronics used to deliver older versions of DSL are long out of production by the telco vendors.

I’m not defending the big telcos, because the telcos caused a lot of their own problems. The telcos have deemphasized copper maintenance for decades. The copper networks would be in bad shape today even had they been maintained perfectly. But purposefully neglected maintenance has hastened the deterioration of copper networks. Additionally, the big telcos have also been laying off copper-based technicians over the last decade and the folks who knew how to best diagnose problems on copper networks are long gone from the companies. Consumers have painfully learned that the most important factor in getting a repair made for DSL or copper is the knowledge of the technician that shows up to investigate an issue.

The California Commission is likely at some point to threaten the big telcos with penalties or sanctions, as been done in the past and also by regulators in other states. But the regulators have little power to effect improvements in the situation. Regulators can’t force the telcos to upgrade to fiber. And no amount of documentation and complaining is going to make the obsolete copper networks function any better. AT&T just announced that on October 1 that it is not longer going to add new customers to the DSL network – that’s likely to really rile the California Commission.

I’m not sure exactly how it will happen, but the day is going to come, likely during the coming decade when telcos will just throw up their hands and declare they are walking away from copper, with zero pretenses that they are going to replace it with something else.  Regulators will rant and rave, but I can’t see any ways that they can stop the inevitable – copper networks at some point won’t work well enough to be worth pretending otherwise.