As schools debate about returning to online learning, the lack of internet access for many Americans is a big sticking point.
One of America’s largest internet providers is uploading its oldest broadband technology into the sunset.
On Oct. 1, AT&T stopped selling digital-subscriber-line connections, stranding many existing subscribers on those low-speed links and leaving new residents of DSL-only areas without any wired broadband.
“We’re beginning to phase out outdated services like DSL and new orders for the service will no longer be supported after October 1,” a corporate statement sent beforehand read. “Current DSL customers will be able to continue their existing service or where possible upgrade to our 100% fiber network.”
DSL – a broadband connection delivered over old copper telephone lines – is no prize at AT&T. The company doesn’t sell downloads faster than 6 Mbps, less than a fourth of the 25-Mbps minimum definition of the Federal Communications Commission and further cramps their utility with stringent data caps of just 150 gigabytes.
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But the technology that provided many people (myself included) their first real broadband still works to provide an always-on connection and far more capacity than satellite connectivity.
“I’m really not surprised that AT&T is phasing out DSL, as it’s an obsolete technology,” emailed one soon-be-stranded DSL subscriber, retiree Jack Mangold of Collettsville, North Carolina. “I am, however, very disappointed that AT&T has no interest in replacing DSL in rural areas with some other technology.”
AT&T reported 653,000 total DSL connections at the end of its second quarter, compared to 14.48 million on its fiber-optic and hybrid-fiber services. The latter, sold as “AT&T Internet,” combines fiber trunk lines with DSL last-mile connections for faster speeds.
The company has seen DSL subscribers steadily dwindle. Bruce Leichtman, president and principal analyst at the research firm Leichtman Research Group, wrote in an email that two years ago, AT&T had just over a million DSL customers.
“AT&T basically gave up on fighting cable over a third of its territory” said Dave Burstein, editor of the trade publication Fast Net News.
That decline has put AT&T narrowly behind Verizon in this slower slice of the market; that New York firm reported 661,000 DSL connections in its second quarter, versus 6.298 million Fios fiber-optic connections.
Verizon and such smaller telecom firms as Lumen (formerly CenturyLink) and Frontier have not announced plans to sunset their own DSL. That’s a good thing for the potentially 3 to 6% of the U.S. that Burstein estimated can only get wired broadband via this technology, even if such fixed-wireless ventures as Verizon’s just-announced expansion of its unlimited-data LTE Home Internet service to some rural areas across 48 states give more people more choices.
But for those customers to get faster connections, providers can’t neglect their networks.
“When I was at the FCC, there was actually hope that DSL technology could be improved to provide actual high speed broadband,” emailed Gigi Sohn, a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy who served as an advisor to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler during the Obama administration. “If I recall correctly, the companies were making promises of speeds around 25 Mbps or even higher.”
That remains possible, as the CEO of a regional provider offering DSL over AT&T phone lines humble-bragged in a Twitter direct-message conversation.
“We deliver up to 100 Mbps,” wrote Dane Jasper, CEO of Sonic. That Santa Rosa, California firm reaches those speeds by pairing DSL connections and installing its own, upgraded switching gear. In some areas, it also sells separate fiber-optic connections that can run 10 times as fast.
Jasper said Sonic customers in its slower lanes don’t have to worry about their own bandwidth’s viability: “That is unaffected by AT&T’s decisions about their own network.”
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