When AT&T purchased DirecTV, merger conditions imposed by the Federal Communications Commission required the ISP to offer Internet service for either $5 or $10 a month to people with low incomes.
But AT&T has found a way around this requirement in areas where the company has failed to upgrade its network to anything remotely resembling modern Internet service. If you live in a place where AT&T’s maximum download speeds are less than a paltry 3Mbps, you can’t get the discount from the new “Access from AT&T” program.
The FCC merger condition appears to require discount Internet service only in areas where speeds of at least 3Mbps are available. In most places, AT&T must offer either 5Mbps or 10Mbps Internet service for $10 per month to poor people. But in areas “where AT&T has deployed broadband service at top speeds below 5Mbps,” the FCC merger order says, “the Company shall offer wireline Broadband Internet Access Service at speeds of at least 3Mbps, where technically available, to qualifying households in the Company’s wireline footprint for no more than $5 per month.”
One phrase—”where technically available”—appears to be crucial. The discounts are supposed to be available to households in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But when the AT&T discount program started in April, “a significant number [of SNAP participants] were being told the program was unavailable at their addresses,” a broadband advocacy group called the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) reported yesterday.
NDIA Director Angela Siefer says AT&T denied a request to provide the $5-per-month service to customers:
About two months ago, NDIA contacted senior management at AT&T and proposed a change in the program to allow SNAP participants living at addresses with 1.5Mbps to qualify for Access service at $5/mo. Yes, we know we were asking for the minimum speed to be lower than it should be, but paying $5/mo is better than paying full price and in many neighborhoods, both urban and rural, Access is the only low-cost broadband service option.
I’m sorry to report that, after considering NDIA’s proposal for over a month, AT&T said no. “AT&T is not prepared to expand the low-income offer to additional speed tiers beyond those established as a condition of the merger approval.”
In response to our questions, AT&T told Ars today that 3Mbps and faster service is available in “the vast majority” of locations where it offers Internet. But the company did not say how much of its territory is stuck on slower speeds.
When contacted by Ars, an FCC spokesperson declined to comment on whether AT&T’s failure to offer the discounts in all parts of its territory violates the merger condition.
Sadly, there are plenty of areas where AT&T’s network is so old that it can’t offer 3Mbps service. The NDIA checked FCC data for Cleveland and Detroit and found that the fastest AT&T download connection reported was 1.5Mbps or less in 21 percent of census blocks. These blocks were mostly in inner-city neighborhoods with many low-income residents.
“AT&T’s response is very unfortunate for tens of thousands of households in the company’s 21-state service territory who may need affordable Internet access the most but who happen to live in places—both city neighborhoods and rural communities—where AT&T has failed to upgrade its residential service to provide reasonable speeds,” the NDIA said.
AT&T’s discount program website provides instructions for signing up and confirms that the Access program isn’t available to customers in areas without access to 3Mbps speeds. For those who qualify, AT&T assigns the fastest speed tier available, either 10Mbps for $10 a month, 5Mbps for $10 a month, or 3Mbps for $5 a month.
“If none of the above speeds are technically available at your address, unfortunately you won’t be able to participate in the Access program from AT&T at this time,” AT&T says. AT&T points these customers to a page that advertises $30-per-month Internet service, though this price is only good for the first 12 months.
The discount service also isn’t available to people with outstanding debt for AT&T Internet service in the past six months.
Data caps apply to the discount service, potentially raising the price for people who can barely afford Internet service to begin with. Customers on AT&T’s DSL network are allowed 150GB a month before overage charges kick in, while the cap is 1TB on the newer U-verse architecture. Overage charges are $10 for each additional 50GB allotment.