AT&T has trouble figuring out where it offers government-funded Internet

By | October 13, 2020
An AT&T logo on the side of a building.

If you live in an area where AT&T has taken government funds in exchange for deploying broadband, there’s a chance you won’t be able to get the service—even if AT&T initially tells you it’s available.

AT&T’s Mississippi division has received over $283 million from the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund since 2015 and in exchange is required to extend home-Internet service to over 133,000 potential customer locations. As we previously reported, the Mississippi Public Service Commission (PSC) accused AT&T of submitting false coverage data to the FCC program. As evidence, Mississippi said its “investigation found concrete, specific examples that show AT&T Mississippi has reported location addresses… as being served when, in fact, the addresses are without service.”

AT&T has since provided an explanation that confirms it submitted false data on the serviceability of some addresses but says it will still meet the overall requirement of serving over 133,000 new customer locations. The problem is in how AT&T determines whether its wireless home-Internet service can reach individual homes and businesses. AT&T uses propagation modeling software to map out coverage areas, but the software isn’t always accurate. This wouldn’t be a problem if AT&T deployed fiber-to-the-home or fiber-to-the-node in these areas, but the company is meeting its obligations with wireless service.

“Unsuccessful installation” attempts

In some cases, customers set up appointments with AT&T to set up broadband service at addresses that AT&T had incorrectly reported to the FCC’s universal service program as being served.

“To be clear, AT&T Mississippi learned, via an unsuccessful installation attempt, that it could not offer service meeting the CAF II [Connect America Fund] minimum performance requirements at those addresses only after it had reported those addresses [to the administrator of the FCC program],” AT&T wrote last week in a letter to the FCC that was published by the Daily Journal of Northeast Mississippi.

AT&T said these locations represent a tiny portion of the addresses it reported as served to the FCC, and that the carrier is correcting the mistakes. AT&T also said it tries to exceed the buildout requirements so that it can hit the overall numbers even when some addresses can’t be served:

The PSC’s letter implies AT&T Mississippi is deceiving the Commission and consumers by advertising Internet access service as available but then being unable to install the service once the technician arrives and checks available signal strength. That concern is unfounded. As the Commission understands, fixed wireless services are affected by terrain. AT&T employs sophisticated propagation modeling software that accounts for factors such as terrain and clutter to identify areas where FWI [fixed wireless Internet] service is available. However, there are instances, such as the ones the PSC notes, where AT&T subsequently learns that the signal may not be strong enough to guarantee service that meets the CAF II performance requirements because, for example, the customer has a significant number of large trees between her/his home and the serving cell tower. Indeed, AT&T has endeavored to exceed each CAF II build milestone to account for this unavoidable circumstance.

AT&T found more addresses that it can serve

AT&T said it has also identified more addresses that its wireless network is capable of serving, which should boost its numbers even after discarding the incorrectly reported addresses.

In August 2015, AT&T accepted $428 million in annual payments from the FCC’s Connect America Fund, with the obligation to “deliver broadband at speeds of at least 10Mbps for downloads and 1Mbps uploads to over 1.1 million homes and businesses in its rural service areas” in 18 states. That included Mississippi, where AT&T gets $49.8 million a year. AT&T’s deadline for serving the specified number of addresses in each state is the end of 2020.

With AT&T having admitted submitting false data for some addresses, the carrier said it “will remove these locations from the [FCC program’s portal] before the end of the year.” AT&T said it can’t do so just yet because the portal, which previously “offered carriers no automated means of updating or removing locations,” is still being updated with the new functionality. To prepare, “AT&T Mississippi has maintained a list of locations in the [portal] that need to be updated, including by removing some permanently as well as removing others and then adding them back with more precise geocoding.”

AT&T said it will add addresses that it previously thought it could not serve. AT&T said it recently hired “a preeminent firm to review the geocoding of AT&T’s entire CAF II inventory of locations, across all eighteen states where it receives CAF II support.” This geocoding project “has identified a large number of broadband-serviceable locations previously thought not to be inside AT&T’s CAF II-eligible census blocks and where AT&T Mississippi has determined it can offer its FWI service. AT&T will add those locations when it updates its [portal] entries.”

AT&T said its revised geocoding will show that some locations “could be more than 1,000 feet from where AT&T previously reported a location. For some locations, that difference in latitude and longitude could mean that we can no longer offer our FWI service to that address.”

But ultimately, AT&T said it expects to “exceed its 100 percent build requirement by the end of this year in all eighteen of its CAF II states, including Mississippi.”

State official rejects AT&T “spin”

This isn’t the first time this year that AT&T has admitted errors in FCC submissions. In April, AT&T disclosed to the FCC that it falsely reported providing home-Internet service in nearly 3,600 census blocks spread across parts of 20 states, including Mississippi. AT&T blamed that problem on “a third party’s geocoding software.”

Mississippi’s PSC commissioners want the federal government to examine AT&T’s claims, as they asked the FCC on September 29 to complete a “full compliance audit” of AT&T’s “pattern of submitting false data.” The FCC hasn’t said yet whether it will do so.

PSC Commissioner Brandon Presley isn’t convinced by AT&T’s latest response. Presley told the Daily Journal that AT&T is trying to “spin” and “downplay” the problem.

AT&T’s false reporting to the FCC program “is an indicator of a larger problem,” Presley said. “And how deep that problem goes, we don’t know right now. They are trying to minimize that, but it is concerning to me. There comes a responsibility with $283 million, and that responsibility is to get it right.”