A snail resting on a computer mouse, to illustrate slow Internet service.

Getty Images | Synergee

Millions of Americans live in broadband deserts with no access to anything resembling modern Internet service. But few people have it as bad as those who must rely on AT&T’s ancient DSL network.

Kathie McNamee of Raymond, Mississippi is one of those unlucky AT&T DSL customers. McNamee said she pays AT&T $35 a month for an up-to-768kbps Internet plan that rarely works well enough to be usable for her, her husband, and two teenage sons. McNamee contacted Ars after reading a story about AT&T incorrectly claiming that certain homes in Mississippi had access to broadband when in fact AT&T isn’t capable of providing service to those addresses.

AT&T has received over $283 million from the Federal Communications Commission since 2015 to extend home-Internet service to over 133,000 potential customer locations in Mississippi. AT&T says it will exceed that requirement by the end-of-2020 deadline, but the company’s mapping mistakes have led to unpleasant surprises for customers who thought they’d get modern broadband.

McNamee and her husband bought their house about two years ago. She told Ars that AT&T told them in advance they could get U-verse Internet service of about 5Mbps. That’s slow by modern standards, but it would have been a lot better than what AT&T ultimately provided.

« The technician comes out here and he’s doing his thing and he said, ‘first of all, you’re not eligible for U-verse. It doesn’t exist out here,' » McNamee told Ars. « Looking at the tests he was running, he said, ‘you’re not going to get 5Mbps. I don’t even know why they would sell you that.’ He said, ‘you’ll be lucky to get 1Mbps.' »

That’s because the old telephone lines leading into McNamee’s house are too far from AT&T nodes to qualify for fiber-to-the-node service that provides faster speeds than basic DSL.

« I called AT&T and went around and around with them selling me something that wasn’t available, » McNamee said. « They had me on their map as eligible for all of these things, but I’m not eligible. [I told them], ‘I need you to change your map because I know you’re taking federal funding and saying you’re servicing all of these places and yet you’re not able to.' » The AT&T map was later changed—typing McNamee’s address in AT&T’s online service checker tool now brings up a message that says no Internet service is available at the house.

Basic tasks impossible with AT&T DSL

Coping with horrible Internet service has been challenging, especially during the pandemic. AT&T DSL is so inconsistent that the family rarely even uses it for basic tasks like Web browsing, McNamee said. « I want a home security system or maybe a garage door I can remotely open in case I or my children get locked out, » but the Internet connection isn’t good enough, she said.

Even AT&T cellular service is unreliable at their house, McNamee said. « It has to be crystal clear outside, no rain, no wind, no anything, and from time to time we can use » AT&T phones as mobile hotspots, she said.

McNamee’s husband sometimes has to drive 50 miles to work during the weekend to take care of things that could be handled at home if they had a good Internet connection, she said. Their teenage sons have similar problems with completing homework. Even sending emails from home is dicey, which has resulted in problems at school when emailed assignments weren’t received.

« If they have to use a computer, my oldest daughter lives in Madison County and they have [Comcast] Xfinity, and so I take [my sons] to her house for the day and let them do anything that requires actual computer work. They can do their work there and email it from there, » McNamee said.

Stories of children sitting outside schools, libraries, and McDonald’s stores to use Wi-Fi have been common during the pandemic, and McNamee’s area is no exception. « There were children who would go to the school and actually sit in the parking lot » to use Wi-Fi, she said.

Netflix and other streaming services don’t work at their home, she said. McNamee said they pay about $250 a month for DirecTV’s satellite video service, which is also owned by AT&T.

McNamee’s house is about three-tenths of a mile from the nearest state highway, MS 18. « There’s 12 houses on our street. It is rural for the most part but we’re not secluded in a hole somewhere, » she said. Raymond has about 2,500 residents.

« We are not asking for 5G, New York or California coverage, but decent service so our kids can do school work at home, » she said.

McNamee also tried to get AT&T’s fixed-wireless service, which the company is using to meet the network-expansion requirements it agreed to in exchange for FCC funding. But their home is too far from AT&T’s cellular tower to get the wireless-home Internet service, McNamee said. McNamee said that neighbors she has spoken to are similarly frustrated by the lack of broadband availability. AT&T DSL is « the only thing that’s available… every one of us has the same issue, » she said.