The dark side of AT&T fiber internet is income inequality, according to a new study by UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute (via Ars Technica). The analysis compared fiber deployed in California to the median income where it was deployed. Here’s what the study found.
AT&T’s Digital Divide In California
The study, called AT&T’s Digital Divide In California, found that affluent areas had much faster fiber speeds than poor areas. California households using AT&T fiber that had a median income of US$94,208 had gigabit speeds. Households with a median income of US$53,186 had download speeds that ranged from 768kbps to 6Mbps.
From the study:
Because there is no regulatory oversight of AT&T’s fiber-to-the-home deployment, AT&T is free to choose the communities in which it builds its all-fiber GigaPower network,” UC Berkeley’s Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society wrote in a report released today. “Our analysis finds that AT&T has built its all-fiber network disproportionately in higher income communities. If this pattern continues, it has troubling consequences for low- and moderate-income Californians, leaving many without access to AT&T’s gold standard all-fiber network and exacerbating the digital divide.
The federal government defines broadband internet as having a minimum of 25Mbps downloads and 3Mbps upload speeds. Although the California utility commission has a much lower definition detailing 6Mbps/1.5Mbps, this is still higher than what AT&T has been providing.
What to Do?
The question for many would be what to do with this information. Those who favor a free market might be quick to note that it’s obvious AT&T would build out its infrastructure in places most likely to offer a good return on its investment. The end.
Those more concerned about the practical effects of the digital divide might argue practical reality trumps the free market. Or that it should. Think everything from opportunity to education to crime.
In centuries past, services like water, electricity, and telephone have been regulated as utilities. Rural America has telephone service, for instance, because the AT&T monopoly of the 20th century was required to provide every household access to a minimum level of service.
The Obama administration started down the path of treating Internet access similarly, but the Trump administration is reversing course. The next administration, or a different Congress, might reverse course yet again.
In the meantime, AT&T is behaving as a corporation will—in the interest of its shareholders. Your mileage will vary on whether this is good or bad.