FCC Wants to Talk to AT&T About Threats to Halt Fiber Installations

AT&T said it would suspend investments in fiber installations to 100 U.S. cities until the government decides on net neutrality rules. The FCC wants more details.

AT&T fiber plans

The FCC appears to be a bit perturbed with AT&T's recent announcement that it is suspending its investments in high-speed fiber networks in 100 U.S. cities until the U.S. government figures out its net neutrality strategy.

In a two-page letter Nov. 14 to Robert W. Quinn Jr., AT&T's federal regulatory and chief privacy officer, the FCC asked the company for more information about its fiber roll-out plans and its fiber work so far in the affected communities.

The FCC letter was sent on the heels of comments made by AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson criticizing the ongoing stalemate over net neutrality policies in Washington. Stephenson said in recent remarks at an analyst conference that government indecision over net neutrality has caused his company to suspend its fiber projects and spending until the net neutrality rules are decided.

Stephenson's comments got a quick reply from the FCC asking for more details about exactly what he meant by those words. At the same time, the FCC is also continuing to review a proposed acquisition of DirecTV by AT&T, which was also a topic of the FCC letter from staffer Jamillia Ferris.

Ferris' letter asks AT&T for "data regarding the company's current plans for fiber deployment, specifically: (1) the current number of households to which fiber is deployed and the breakdown by technology [i.e., Fiber-to-the-Premises (FTTP) or Fiber-to-the-Neighborhood (FTTN)] and geographic area of deployment."

The letter also seeks information about "whether the AT&T FTTP Investment Model demonstrates that fiber deployment is now unprofitable," as well as information about how the potential DirecTV acquisition would affect fiber rollouts and profitability.

AT&T apparently proposes to limit its fiber deployment to 2 million homes after it acquires DirecTV, and the FCC wants an explanation of that proposal, wrote Ferris.

The FCC asked Quinn for a response to its inquiry by Nov. 21.

In April, AT&T announced that it would begin an initiative to expand its fiber network to 100 cities and municipalities nationwide, including 21 major metropolitan areas around Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago; Cleveland; Fort Worth, Texas; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Houston; Jacksonville, Fla.; Kansas City; Los Angeles; Miami; Orlando, Fla.; San Diego and San Francisco.

Stephenson's comments about his company's fiber concerns came after President Obama issued his own comments about the Internet and its future recently, shortly after leaving on a trip to Asia. Obama said he wants to see the FCC adopt Title II as a way to include Internet service providers (ISPs) in existing neutrality regulations. Title II refers to the Communications Act, which gives the FCC the power to regulate communications in the United States. Title II was originally intended to make sure that telephone companies provided service to anyone in their coverage area.

At the same time, Tom Wheeler, FCC chairman, said his view differs from that of the president. Wheeler said he prefers a "more nuanced solution" to the issue, according to a recent eWEEK report.

Earlier this year, AT&T had begun offering its high-speed U-verse with GigaPower services to customers around Austin, Texas—one of three areas in which Google now offers Google Fiber. AT&T also announced in April that it was in talks to do the same in the Triangle and Piedmont Triad regions of North Carolina. With its fiber broadband network, the company said that network speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second are "within sight."

In October, officials from AT&T, Comcast and Verizon told U.S. leaders that they do not plan to offer faster Internet access, or so-called "fast lanes," to content producers who are willing to pay more to get their messages out in front of competitors' transmissions.

The issue of net neutrality has been hotly debated for several years, with proponents and opponents arguing their positions and bashing the opposition verbally in public forums and discussions.

In September, the FCC announced that it had received a record 3 million comments about proposed rules for net neutrality by a Sept. 15 deadline.

While Obama was running for the presidency in 2007 and 2008, he pledged to support net neutrality if elected.