“Access from AT&T”, AT&T’s $5-to-$10 Internet service for households enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), will no longer be required by Federal Communications Commission order and may well come to an end in April 2020.
Ironically, this may happen just as AT&T’s surprise deployment of fiber infrastructure in low income Cleveland and East Cleveland neighborhoods could make Access service much more valuable to eligible households in those neighborhoods.
The Access program was created as one condition of the FCC’s July 2015 approval of AT&T’s acquisition of DirectTV. The agency’s Opinion and Order in that case required the company to launch its promised “Discounted Broadband Services Program” within nine months (i.e. by April 22, 2016), and to continue offering it for at least four years from its commencement.
Households that join the program during its fourth year are supposed to get a full twelve months of discounted service. But otherwise, AT&T’s obligation to offer Access rates to new or existing customers will end on April 22, 2020 — four years from the date the program officially launched.
How many households are using Access discounts? That’s a closely held secret. The FCC order requires AT&T to file a report every six months describing “The total number of households participating in the Discounted Broadband Services Program” as well as “A detailed description of outreach efforts made during the reporting period to publicize the Discounted Broadband Services Program”. Copies of these compliance reports are publicly available at the FCC website (here’s the most recent). But Access participation statistics are completely redacted from the public copies.
So we don’t know how many households in greater Cleveland are now relying on Access from AT&T for their Internet connections. But we do have some idea how many are eligible:
- The Census’ American Community Survey for 2017 estimates that almost 98,000 Cuyahoga County households received SNAP assistance that year, including 59,000 households in the city of Cleveland; and
- The Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services Caseload Summary Statistics Report for January 2019 says that Cuyahoga County had about 110,000 households in its SNAP caseload that month.
So the number of Cuyahoga County households currently eligible for $5-$10 Internet service from AT&T is probably 100,000 or more — with something like 60,000 eligible households just in the city of Cleveland.
Many, many of those households live in the city’s lower-income northeast and near West Side neighborhoods where AT&T’s connection speeds have been kept very slow by the company’s digital redlining. That slow service — i.e. download speeds of 3 Mbps or less — has severely limited the usefulness of the Access discount offer to thousands of eligible residents since it began in 2016.
But just as Access from AT&T enters its fourth and probably final year, those redlined, slow-connection neighborhoods are apparently getting a huge speed upgrade in the form of AT&T Fiber. Homes that currently pay AT&T $60 a month for “up to 10/1 Mbps” ADSL speeds may suddenly be able to buy 100/100 Mbps service for roughly the same price.
AT&T hasn’t yet spoken publicly about its deployment of fiber to formerly redlined East Side, near West Side and East Cleveland neighborhoods… or even acknowledged that it’s taking place. We hear an “unveiling” might be in the works around the end of April.
But whenever that unveiling happens, one issue that needs to be placed front and center — by AT&T itself, the community and the media — is the future of Access from AT&T.
1) Will much faster faster overall speeds in lower-income Cleveland and East Cleveland neighborhoods translate to faster speeds for SNAP households that participate in Access? Will they all be able to get at least the 10/1 Mbps that the program currently offers “where technically available”? Or will Access service still be delivered only over those old, slow copper ADSL circuits?
2) Is AT&T planning to continue the Access program after next April, when it’s no longer required by FCC order? Or is the company planning to shut down discounted service for low income households as soon as it can?
AT&T fiber going up on poles in neighborhoods that were bypassed by the last round of broadband upgrades is undoubtedly good news — good for many residents and businesses, and for the community in general.
But will it do anything to improve access for the neighborhoods’s poorer, less-connected residents? Or will those thousands of residents — along with many others throughout this community — have even less opportunity for broadband they can afford, as Access from AT&T disappears?
If AT&T really wants to put its legacy of digital redlining behind it, it had better have good answers to these questions.