AT&T is today making good on a promise it had to make to the FCC last year, announcing their new program to connect more poor Americans to the internet and bridge that infamous digital divide.
The FCC has a history of making ISPs provide inexpensive connections to low-income families as a merger condition. For example, Comcast’s Internet Essentials sprang into being as a merger condition when the cable behemoth bought NBCUniversal in 2011.
The AT&T / DirecTV merger, approved just last year, is no different. The FCC mandated, as part of their approval of that merger, that AT&T make available some kind of affordable access program to low-income consumers, and so AT&T has announced it is doing just that.
Expanding internet access to low-income individuals and families is both great and necessary, so let’s start with the kudos to AT&T for doing a good thing: they absolutely are. The more people that can access information online, the better off basically all of us are, and so every line matters.
Now with that said, let’s get into the details.
One key way in which AT&T Access differs from Comcast Internet Essentials has to do with eligibility: While Comcast says any household with at least one child getting free or reduced school lunch is a qualified low-income household, AT&T is instead using SNAP (food stamp) participation as their benchmark.
About 22 million households nationwide were participating in SNAP as of the most recent data (January, 2016), so any of those households in the 21 states where AT&T provides internet access are eligible.
That’s no small number, especially in context. For comparison, Comcast Internet Essentials has about 600,000 subscribing households, and 12 million households use Lifeline. AT&T is in a position to reach a whole lot of people, including single adults and seniors without young children in the home, and that’s a good thing.
But what are they going to be reached with, exactly?
AT&T says participating households will “get the fastest of three speed tiers — 10Mbps, 5Mbps or 3Mbps — available at their address,” which is kind of a hairy definition of access. “What’s available at your address” is going to be highly variable depending on, well, your address. Internet Essentials, meanwhile, is a uniform 10 Mbps across the board.
On the other hand, AT&T Access does at least also have variable pricing for those variable speeds; connecting at 10Mbps or 5Mbps will cost $10 per month, but connecting at 3Mbps will cost $5.
But neither Comcast’s nor AT&T’s maximum speeds meet’s the FCC’s aspirational 25 Mbps minimum definition for true, modern broadband. For that matter, even 3G mobile data — for which low-income consumers can soon also use their Lifeline credit — is probably going to be faster for many users than AT&T’s 3 or 5 Mbps offerings.
Also, like AT&T’s higher-paying customers, Access subscribers will also be subject to a potentially pricey data cap. The pricing structure being put in place in late May will cap service either at 100 or 300 GB per month, depending on connection speed, after which customers are charged $10 per every 50 GB used.
So on the one hand, AT&T is bringing cheap internet to several million households, which is great. And on the other hand, given the possibility of overage charges; the wane of wired access, with a matching dip in traditional desktop or laptop use; and the gain in mobile, device-based, wireless internet use, it’s hard to project what percentage of those households will actually see a point to AT&T’s new offering.
But still: the FCC asked, and the program has arrived. Perhaps it will help us chip away at digital inequality one more household at a time.
AT&T Setting Out to Connect More U.S. Residents to the Internet [AT&T official]
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Consumerist.