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Your neighbors get high-speed Internet but you don't

Imagine that everyone in your neighborhood has high-speed Internet at their home, but every time you call the ISP, the representative on the other end tells you the service is unavailable at your home. That's the infuriating situation facing some AT&T customers right now.

Mark Lewis moved to Winterville, Georgia, with his wife in 2012. The area is served by AT&T, and Lewis expected to receive the same 3 Mbps (Megabit per second) broadband service that his neighbors and the previous home owner all enjoyed. Instead, hit hit a dead end trying to get decent Internet service for his home. When Lewis called AT&T to start his service, a representative for the company told him it was currently at "maximum capacity." The rep then told him to continue calling back to see if another customer in the area dropped service, because that would open up a spot for Lewis.

This isn't an isolated incident. There are other AT&T customers in rural areas and apartment buildings who are willing to pay the company for Internet service, but can't.

Together, these stories highlight a confounding situation involving minimal oversight, miscommunication, and millions of customers left with sub-broadband speeds or no Internet service at all.

Back in 2006, the FCC required AT&T to offer Internet speeds of up to 200kbps to all customers in its service area by 2008 as part of an agreement that allowed the company to purchase BellSouth. The FCC didn't contend AT&T's claims that it met its obligations under this agreement.

The merger agreement required AT&T to meet 85 percent of the ubiquitous broadband commitment with wireline technologies such as DSL and to keep offering DSL for 30 months.

However, many customers claim this didn't happen. They say that they have no access to broadband Internet and that AT&T never offered them a wireless alternative. Now, AT&T is attempting to purchase DirecTV, and it's making promises to expand its network again. But, opponents of the deal want the FCC to take another look at the BellSouth merger before approving this new one.

AT&T tells Lewis and customers the same situation that there aren't enough "ports" in the area to provide service to their homes. These ports are housed in a large metal box in your neighborhood or at the one of the providers' offices. All of the copper lines that provide phone and Internet service to homes in the area feed to this box. A fiber line then connects this box to the ISP's office to provide Internet service to homes.

A typical cabinet can hold one or two DSLAMs [Digital Subscriber Line Access Multiplexers] and serve about 400 to 800 subscribers, one household per port, he said. The cabinet typically connects via fiber to the provider’s central office, and from there to the rest of the Internet. The main limitation for subscribers is in the copper phone line that connects from their homes to the DSLAM. The more distance data has to travel over copper from the DSLAM to homes, the fewer megabits (or kilobits) per second customers get. But as long as the nearest DSLAM has enough ports to serve each local household, they can typically get service.

If the box in an area runs out of ports, then new customers are out luck. The ISP, AT&T in this case, could add another box or add more ports to the existing box, but many companies are hesitant to do this unless they believe the investment and time commitment is worthwhile.

Without enough ports in the area, customers like Lewis are forced to purchase expensive wireless data plans or satellite Internet service that often include monthly data caps. Lewis has been paying Verizon for 10 GB per month of cellular data to connect to the Internet.

To fix service and speed issues, AT&T could add more boxes in underserved areas to provide more ports for customers. It could also expand its network of upgraded Internet services, like U-Verse, that provide much better speeds than existing DSL.

However, expanding those networks is expensive and unlikely to happen anytime soon. AT&T is proposing a fixed wireless Internet service that would reach parts of 48 states. AT&T claims its fixed wireless network could provide Internet speeds between 15 and 20 Mbps. But, it only plans on building out this service if the DirecTV merger is approved, and it likely won't help existing customers currently struggling to get DSL access.

By adding the 13 million new fixed wireless locations to the 57 million where it plans wireline IP service, AT&T says it will bring "high-speed fixed broadband" to 70 million locations. Since only about two million of the new wireless locations will be inside the copper footprint, that means 59 million of the 76 million wireline locations will get access to something approaching modern broadband. The other 17 million includes people with AT&T's slowest DSL as well as those who can't get any AT&T Internet service at all.

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