AT&T customer since 1960 buys WSJ print ad to complain of slow speeds
February 4, 2021
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A snail resting on a computer mouse, to illustrate slow Internet service.

A man who has been an AT&T customer since 1960 has a message for CEO John Stankey about the company’s failure to upgrade DSL areas to modern Internet service. Aaron Epstein, 90, is so frustrated by his 3Mbps Internet plan that he took out a Wall Street Journal ad in today’s print edition in order to post an open letter to Stankey.

“Dear Mr. Stankey: AT&T prides itself as a leader in electronic communications. Unfortunately, for the people who live in N. Hollywood, CA 91607, AT&T is now a major disappointment,” Epstein wrote in the letter.

Epstein paid $1,100 to run the ad for one day in the Manhattan and Dallas editions of today’s Journal, he told Ars in a phone interview. He chose the Manhattan edition to reach investors who might want to pressure AT&T into upgrading its network and Dallas because that’s where AT&T is headquartered, he said.

“We need to keep up with current technology and have looked to AT&T to supply us with fast Internet service,” Epstein wrote in the open letter to AT&T’s CEO. “Yet, although AT&T is advertising speeds up to 100Mbps for other neighborhoods, the fastest now available to us from AT&T is only 3Mbps. Your competitors now have speeds of over 200Mbps. Why is AT&T, a leading communications company, treating us so shabbily in North Hollywood?”

The digital version of The Wall Street Journal print edition, available online to subscribers, shows that Epstein’s ad ran today on page A7 and took up the bottom left quarter of the page. We first learned of Epstein’s ad when a Twitter user posted a picture of the print edition:

Obsolete DSL

Plugging Epstein’s address into AT&T’s Internet-availability checker results in a message saying that “high-speed Internet isn’t available at your address.” This likely means that it’s in one of the areas where AT&T is discontinuing DSL service despite its failure to upgrade the areas to fiber-to-the-home or fiber-to-the-node. Existing users are supposed to be able to keep their DSL service in these places, but AT&T isn’t accepting new customers.

“I get very annoyed because, periodically, I get snail mail and periodically I see ads on TV and ads on the Internet offering the faster service [from AT&T],” Epstein told Ars. But whenever Epstein calls AT&T about getting faster speeds, a customer service rep says the company is working on it but cannot provide a date for when it will be available, he said.

Epstein said his “3Mbps” service often provides just 1.5Mbps when he checks the speed. The slow speeds give him trouble with online streaming on his Roku device. “It’s very frustrating because now we all use streaming services… sometimes the movies are perfectly smooth and fast, and other times it’s too frustrating and I don’t use it at all,” he said.

AT&T is not Epstein’s only option for wired Internet service. In fact, he said he pays for both Charter Spectrum’s cable Internet and AT&T DSL at home but generally only uses AT&T Internet because, he said, “in order to get phone service, I have to use the AT&T modem.” He noted that a technician could probably set things up so that he could use AT&T phone service and Charter Internet. But with the pandemic continuing, Epstein said that he and his wife are playing it safe by not having any visitors in the house.

AT&T neglect helps cable ISPs dominate

While having both Charter cable and AT&T DSL available is a better situation than living in DSL-only territory, AT&T’s abandonment of many DSL areas helps cable companies solidify their regional dominance and avoid competition. Comcast and Charter, the two largest US cable companies, don’t compete against each other in individual cities and towns. For tens of millions of Americans, the only broadband option with modern speeds is either Charter or Comcast.

There are 52.97 million households in AT&T’s 21-state wireline service area, and 14.93 million of them have fiber-to-the-home access, the Communications Workers of America union recently told Ars. AT&T has nearly 5 million paying fiber-to-the-home customers and 8.7 million fiber-to-the-node customers. There are 407,000 paying DSL customers in areas where AT&T is phasing out the legacy service, and that number has been dropping steadily each quarter.

AT&T has slowed down fiber-to-the-home construction since completing deployment obligations required by the merger conditions of its 2015 purchase of DirecTV. AT&T has dramatically reduced its workforce, from 273,210 employees in mid-2018 to 230,760 employees at the end of 2020. While these cuts have affected more than just wireline network operations, they have resulted in fewer technicians available for deploying fiber or maintaining the old DSL network.

Epstein said he pays AT&T about $100 a month at home for two phone lines and Internet service and $49 a month to Charter for cable Internet. Epstein also pays AT&T for phone and Internet service at a business he owns in Sherman Oaks, but he said the slow Internet doesn’t bother him much in the office because he uses it for basic tasks like email and not for video streaming.

Epstein hadn’t received a response to his open letter from AT&T when we talked to him this morning.

When contacted by Ars, an AT&T spokesperson said the company will reach out to Epstein to address his concerns. AT&T did not answer our specific questions, such as whether it will upgrade Internet service at Epstein’s address or whether it recommends that customers like Epstein switch to Charter. AT&T provided the following statement: “We continually enhance and invest in our wireless and wireline networks. We have invested more than $3.1 billion in our Los Angeles-area networks from 2017-2019.”

Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.

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