Recently, AT&T announced that it would begin to phase out its Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) internet service across the nation. The decision will leave an unknown number of current DSL subscribers without a fixed or terrestrial broadband alternative. 

The Federal Communications Commission has reasserted in a draft order that the repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order, in which the agency relinquished its authority over Internet service providers, would help increase broadband deployment and quality of internet service experienced by consumers across the nation. However, AT&T’s actions cut directly against this rationale, as an unknowable number of households may soon be left without connectivity and no access to a reliable substitute.

On October 14, 2020, Next Century Cities (NCC) alongside Public Knowledge, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Common Cause, the Communications Workers of America, and the Greenlining Institute, filed an ex parte highlighting the following points: 

  1. AT&T’s disconnection policy is outside of the commission’s oversight authority and therefore is antithetical to the Draft Order claiming there would be no meaningful harm in reclassification;
  2. The consumers most likely to be affected are those in rural and low-income communities. Which may cut off rural consumers on the West and Gulf Coasts from necessary public safety communications; 
  3. The potential harms as a result of AT&T’s actions will have unintended consequences for public safety that the Commission will not be able to correct; and
  4. In some cases the AT&T decision may eliminate the only Lifeline provider in an area.

The draft FCC order ensures the Commission will not intervene on behalf of consumers. Meanwhile, providers are able to pick and choose which areas are too costly to serve with outdated technologies, even if those technologies are the only thing keeping communities connected. 

The Commission also stands to set a new dangerous precedent that it will not allow states and localities to mandate what providers can do in the absence of federal regulation. AT&T’s actions provide direct evidence that the Commission’s rationale is flawed and that many communities are in danger of having the connectivity rug pulled out from under them. 

As communities seek to expand broadband access, they require consistency and strong rulemaking that will ensure providers do not have the option to simply up and leave. The Commission’s choice to reiterate that the reclassification of broadband’s benefits are greater than its harms turns a blind eye to a very clear problem.