AT&T has a bad habit of starting broadband technology deployments with bold declarations of new "projects," but half heartedly following through on them, leaving its infrastructure in disarray and like an unfinished information highway to nowhere.
Near the start of the current decade, AT&T (then SBC Communications) announced Project Pronto. The goal was to speed up the deployment of high speed Internet services — Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) over copper cable and twisted pair — to 80 percent of the phone company’s service area by 2002 and throughout its entire service area by 2006. Both deadlines were missed, with more than one in five residential customers unable to obtain any broadband services from the telco by the end of that year.
Now AT&T has decided to abandon that incomplete project in favor of another -- Project Lightspeed. It eschews the legacy DSL of the failed Project Pronto in favor of faster DSL -- VDSL -- running over a hybrid of fiber to the node (FTTN) and copper to the premises. The purpose of Project Lightspeed is to provide the necessary infrastructure to deliver AT&T's bundled Internet Protocol-based voice, data and video services known as U-Verse.
Like Project Pronto before it, Project Lightspeed/U-Verse appears to be faltering amid various technological and market challenges with the number of subscribers falling far below AT&T's goals and setting the stage for yet another incomplete initiative.
Complicating the picture is AT&T's decision to halt new deployments of its older legacy DSL technology in favor of the new VDSL Project Lightspeed platform, leaving large segments of customers who have been waiting for years for DSL hookups left in the lurch.
AT&T badly needs a management shakeup. It's time for an end to the fits and starts of ill-fated "projects" in favor of a new, long term comprehensive broadband strategy. It should commit itself to a deployment plan that covers all -- and not just selected portions -- of its 22-state service area and see it through to timely completion.
AT&T's customers deserve better. So do its shareholders, whom I believe would have the patience and perseverance AT&T's management has been lacking and would back a comprehensive broadband strategy if management clearly laid out the long term benefits.
The future of AT&T is at stake. It must decide if it wants to enter the digital, Internet telecommunications age or remain a mere "telephone company," content to rest on its laurels and passively depreciate its aging analog copper cable infrastructure while burdening itself with large dividend payments (recently five percent or $1.60 a share) that divert funds from needed investment in technology research and updated delivery infrastructure. If it chooses the latter course, then it shouldn't be surprised if bears and short sellers start stalking the company in the near future.