AT&T says it’s not ignoring low-income broadband needs

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AT&T says its network investments are in line with the rules set by the FCC's Communications Act.

AT&T says the latest claims that it is ignoring the broadband needs of low-income residents in Detroit are false and that it continues to enhance speeds.

In a new complaint filed at the FCC, the telco has been accused of ignoring the broadband needs of low-income residents in Detroit. The practice is called “digital redlining,” a process of income-based discrimination carried out against lower-income neighborhoods.

“We do not redline,” AT&T said in a statement to FierceTelecom. “Our commitment to diversity and inclusion is unparalleled."

AT&T added that its network investments are in line with the rules set by the FCC's Communications Act and that it will present its side of the story. 

"Our investment decisions are based on the cost of deployment and demand for our services and are of course fully compliant with the requirements of the Communications Act," AT&T said. "We will vigorously defend the complaint.”

RELATED: AT&T accused of ignoring lower-income Cleveland neighborhoods’ broadband needs

This latest suit was filed by Edward Garner Taylor and Ray Taylor, two Detroit African-American residents who allege that AT&T’s offerings of high speed broadband service violate the FCC’s Communications Act’s prohibition against unjust and unreasonable discrimination. Additionally, the plaintiffs say AT&T’s actions undermine the commission’s goal and mandate to widely deploy communications services to all members of the public in the United States.

"AT&T’s arrogance and blatant disregard for low-income minority communities do not end with Detroit or Cleveland," said Daryl Parks, who is representing the under-served customers. "We are seeing a very discouraging pattern across the country. There are more cities, states and complainants to come.”

To support the case, the suit cites analysis conducted by Dr. Brian Whitacre, associate professor and extension economist in the agricultural economics department at Oklahoma State University. He conducted an analysis of publicly available datasets submitted by AT&T on its Form 477 from June 2016 in other cities, specifically Detroit.

According to Whitacre’s analysis, Detroit demonstrates that AT&T withheld fiber-enhanced broadband improvements from most Detroit neighborhoods with high poverty rates, relegating them to internet access services which are vastly inferior to the services enjoyed by their counterparts nearby in the higher-income Detroit suburbs.

While AT&T has been rolling out FTTH 1 Gbps speed services in various larger metro areas, low-income areas can only get access to copper-based ADSL2-based broadband services that have variable speeds. Being a copper-based technology, customers who live close to a nearby Central Office can get up to 18 Mbps speeds, but the rates drop to 6 Mbps, 3 Mbps or less for customers that live at distances above a mile from the nearest network point.

In his analysis, Whitcare pointed to data that illustrates AT&T has not made network investments to support its fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) VDSL services “from the overwhelming majority of census blocks with individual poverty rates above 35%.”

Whitcare said as a result, “residents of these neighborhoods: suffer uneven, often severely limited Internet access, in many cases 3 mbps downstream or less, and also lack access to AT&T’s competitive fiber-enabled video service and the benefits such competition and service would bring.”

Detroit is just one area where AT&T has come under fire for allegedly ignoring the broadband needs of lower-income residents.

Earlier this year, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) accused the telco of passing over lower-income Cleveland neighborhoods when it made recent broadband upgrades in the area.

Citing FCC Form 477 Census block data for June 2016, NDIA claimed that AT&T has not upgraded the majority of Cleveland neighborhoods with high poverty rates, including Hough, Glenville, Central, Fairfax, South Collinwood, St. Clair-Superior, Detroit-Shoreway, Stockyards and others.

At that time, the groups said that AT&T was simply refusing to upgrade to VDSL across the majority of Cleveland Census blocks, "including the overwhelming majority of blocks with individual poverty rates above 35%."