AT&T takes defensive stance in digital redlining comments

On February 23, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Notice of Inquiry related to digital redlining and how to prevent it in the future. Digital redlining is a practice in which some service providers have historically avoided providing broadband connections to certain areas, resulting in digital discrimination of some races and economic classes.

The Notice of Inquiry specifically seeks comment on section 60506 of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). The public comments received by the FCC will inform a forthcoming Notice of Proposed Rulemaking intended to prevent and eliminate digital discrimination.

The FCC notes that broadband is a necessity, saying, “Every person across our nation deserves — and must have — equal access to this crucial technology in the increasingly digital world; a person’s zip code should not determine their destiny.”

Many large wireline providers have already filed comments with the FCC, including Verizon, AT&T and Lumen Technologies.

Verizon expressed its support for measures to prevent digital redlining. And it touted its support for programs such as the FCC’s 2018 Connect America Fund (CAF), its 5G Fund for Rural America and the new Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).

Verizon’s main caution to the FCC is that it recommends taking a holistic view to close the digital divide and asks the FCC to be mindful of practical realities in the deployment process such as technology choices and logistical hurdles.

AT&T questions the premise of digital redlining

But AT&T takes a more defensive stance in its comments. It repeatedly notes that private enterprise has invested approximately $2 trillion in risk capital over the past 25 years to build the country’s “massive broadband infrastructure.” It wants the FCC to “maintain the investment-friendly, light-touch regulatory policy that has governed broadband service for most of the past quarter century.”

One segment of its comments is entitled “Allegations of Systemic Demographic Disparities in Broadband Availability Lack Any Factual Basis.”

Similar in tone to its comments regarding pole attachment regulations, AT&T seems mainly concerned with not incurring costs related to eliminating digital redlining. Its comments say some groups want to “saddle private enterprise with the burden of correcting any disparities in broadband availability…. whether the deficit is caused by discriminatory intent or not. And they would require broadband providers to fix such disparities at their own expense wherever they appear.”

AT&T also cites some data from former FCC Chief Economist Glenn Woroch in which he claims that a nationwide, census-block-level analysis of broadband deployment shows that 100/20 Mbps broadband availability rates for non-white households are higher than for white households and that availability rates for households above and below the poverty line are nearly identical.

AT&T said, “The Infrastructure Act promises to close America’s digital divide — not by blowing up the free market engine that has already made 100/20 Mbps services available to nine out of 10 U.S. households, but by supplementing private investment with $65 billion in new subsidy programs. AT&T looks forward to participating in those programs and helping the Commission fulfill the Act’s promise of universal high-speed broadband.”

For its part, Lumen Technologies said, “The Commission’s efforts to facilitate equal access should focus on incentivizing broadband investment targeted to this goal and cannot include deployment build-out mandates.”

And Lumen also stresses that the FCC’s work to eliminate digital redlining must be “driven by solid and reliable data.”

T-Mobile also filed comments, even though it doesn’t have a wired broadband offering.

True to its usual Un-Carrier tone, T-Mobile bragged about its network. “T-Mobile has long been a leader in deploying and offering next-generation wireless broadband offerings to consumers, regardless of their demographics or income. T-Mobile has aggressively deployed 4G LTE, and T-Mobile’s 5G network already covers 310 million Americans, or 95% of the U.S. population.”