AT&T has declined to make its new low-cost Internet program available to many thousands of eligible households who have the bad luck to live at an address where the company’s maximum download speed for new residential accounts is below 3 mbps.

Here’s the story.

“Access From AT&T” is a low-cost broadband service that was an FCC condition of AT&T’s merger with DirectTV.  Launched in most AT&T markets in April, the program is supposed to enable any user of the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to purchase AT&T high speed home Internet service for either $10 or $5 a month, depending on the download speed “technically available” at the user’s address – 10 Mbps for $10/mo, 5 Mbps for $10/mo or 3 Mbps for $5 (plus tax).

As some NDIA affiliates in AT&T’s service area geared up to help SNAP participants apply for Access in May and June, they found that a significant number were being told the program was unavailable at their addresses. Some of those households had recent histories of AT&T Internet service or had next door neighbors with current accounts. So, why were they being told AT&T did not serve their addresses?

The problem: The threshold for Access From AT&T is a download speed of 3 Mbps. If the fastest speed available at a particular address is less than 3 mbps, an otherwise eligible SNAP recipient at that address can’t sign up for Access – though they can pay full price for lower speeds.

You might think we’re talking about a few isolated rural areas here.  Think again. According to data published by the FCC from its Form 477 surveys of providers, AT&T’s fastest reported download connection for VDSL (its current version of Digital Subscriber Line service) was 1.5 mbps or less for households in about 21% of all Census blocks in the cities of Cleveland and Detroit. Those blocks are mostly in inner-city neighborhoods with many low income households. (See Cleveland map below.)

About two months ago, NDIA contacted senior management at AT&T and proposed a change in the program to allow SNAP participants living at addresses with 1.5 Mbps to qualify for Access service at $5/mo. Yes, we know we were asking for the minimum speed to be lower than it should be, but paying $5/mo is better than paying full price and in many neighborhoods, both urban and rural, Access is the only low-cost broadband service option.

I’m sorry to report that, after considering NDIA’s proposal for over a month, AT&T said no. “AT&T is not prepared to expand the low income offer to additional speed tiers beyond those established as a condition of the merger approval.”

AT&T’s response is very unfortunate for tens of thousands of households in the company’s 21-state service territory who may need affordable Internet access the most, but who happen to live in places – both city neighborhoods and rural communities – where AT&T has failed to upgrade its residential service to provide reasonable speeds.

We’ll post more news as it develops.