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AT&T scrambles to install fiber for 90-year-old after his viral WSJ ad

Enlarge / Aaron Epstein after conducting a speed test on his new AT&T fiber service, in a picture taken by his wife, Anne.

Anne Epstein

When 90-year-old Aaron Epstein bought a Wall Street Journal print ad to complain about his slow AT&T Internet service, the impact was immediate. Reporters like me called him and wrote articles, talk of his plight went viral on the Internet, his ad made an appearance on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show, TV networks interviewed him for nightly news broadcasts, and AT&T executives sprang into action to minimize the public-relations damage.

Now, barely a week later, Epstein’s home in North Hollywood, California, has AT&T fiber service with unlimited data and advertised speeds of 300Mbps in both directions. In a speed test yesterday, download speeds were 363Mbps and upload speeds were 376Mbps. It’s a gigantic upgrade over the “up to” 3Mbps DSL he and his wife, Anne, struggled with before.

Normally, complaints about AT&T DSL don’t lead to fiber-to-the-home upgrades the next week, as AT&T has essentially abandoned the old phone network in large parts of the country where AT&T has not deemed it profitable enough to install state-of-the-art technology. But it appears we have discovered what it takes to kick AT&T into its fastest fiber-installation mode, and the answer is a quarter-page Wall Street Journal print ad.

AT&T techs arrive

AT&T called Epstein when our article about his ad was published on Wednesday last week. AT&T technicians knocked on his door the next day to tell him they’d be installing fiber. Yesterday, AT&T techs returned to finish the installation and set up his new service. Epstein is paying $45 a month for the first 12 months, after which it would rise to $65.

“The AT&T people I talked to tell me that they had to install extra wiring, and it’s costing them thousands and thousands of dollars to put this wiring just for my house because my neighbors still do not have it, and they still have to go to considerable expense to hook up my neighbors,” Epstein told Ars.

We asked AT&T if Epstein’s neighbors will be hooked up soon and will update this article if we get a response.

Other people nearby apparently had AT&T fiber service already. The fiber cables now going into Epstein’s house connect back to fiber that was installed “two or three blocks away,” Epstein said.

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Update #1 at 12:22pm ET: AT&T didn’t provide a direct answer about when or if it will hook up all of Epstein’s neighbors, but gave us this statement claiming that it planned to upgrade Epstein’s house and others nearby all along:

Earlier this week we completed our planned expansion of AT&T Fiber in this customer’s neighborhood, and we were pleased to provide him the upgrade he wanted. This neighborhood was already planned to receive fiber and is part of our ongoing fiber expansion in the larger Los Angeles area. Nationally, we recently announced that we will bring AT&T Fiber to an additional 2 million residential locations this year.

But it’s hard to believe that Epstein’s ad had no effect on AT&T installing fiber at his house yesterday. When we contacted AT&T last week, the company had nothing to say about whether it would ever install fiber at Epstein’s house, saying only that “We continually enhance and invest in our wireless and wireline networks” and “have invested more than $3.1 billion in our Los Angeles-area networks from 2017-2019.” If the upgrade was really in the works before Epstein’s ad, AT&T probably would have said so when the controversy erupted over a week ago.

Update #2 at 1:20pm ET: AT&T CEO John Stankey called Epstein personally today, Epstein told us. Stankey told Epstein that he saw his WSJ ad in a packet of press clippings given to him by staff. Stankey also apparently gave Epstein a different answer than the one we got from AT&T’s public-relations team about when the rest of his neighborhood will get fiber. “He said that the way things are, my neighborhood should have it within 12 months,” Epstein told us, shortly after getting off the phone with AT&T’s CEO. By contrast, AT&T’s spokesperson told us it has “completed” the expansion in his neighborhood, which appears to be incorrect based on what Stankey and other AT&T employees told Epstein.

Update #3 at 2:30pm ET: AT&T’s spokesperson circled back to us, admitting that the fiber installations in Epstein’s neighborhood have not been completed. While AT&T previously told us that “we completed our planned expansion of AT&T Fiber in this customer’s neighborhood,” the spokesperson subsequently clarified that “what’s completed is bringing fiber to the neighborhood.” That means AT&T installed fiber to part of the neighborhood but has not extended the fiber to the rest of the homes. “The neighborhood connection is complete and we are working as quickly as possible to complete our work in the neighborhood,” AT&T said.

“I chose the only route that I know”

The WSJ ad wasn’t Epstein’s first attempt to get faster AT&T service. But contacting AT&T directly, with no threat of media exposure, didn’t produce any results. We wrote in our article last week:

“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 yesterday that he believes the Ars article about his ad is what got “the wheels rolling,” as we interviewed him and wrote our story before other publications did. “Your power is costing them a lot of money, and I don’t see how they can recoup that money by what I pay them each month,” he told us.

But the key factor was Epstein’s decision to buy a large ad in a major newspaper and fill it with a firm but polite plea to the AT&T CEO for better service. Epstein’s story was too good to pass up, and he would have heard from other journalists soon enough if we hadn’t contacted him first. Within hours of his WSJ ad appearing in the paper, pictures of it were being shared on Twitter, which is where we first saw it.

I mean how upset one must be, over slow home internet speeds, to pay for a personal quarter-page national ad in print @WSJ pic.twitter.com/Zk9umKD0t1

— Raju Narisetti (@raju) February 3, 2021

Epstein said the ad cost him $10,000 (not $1,100 as originally stated). “I chose the only route that I know. There are other people that know how to get up on social networks and voice their complaints,” he said. Epstein has been a customer of AT&T through its various permutations since 1960 and still uses a “pacbell.net” email address from the Pacific Bell brand discontinued nearly 20 years ago.

Buying a $10,000 newspaper ad is far from an ideal way to get better Internet access, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth complaining in less expensive or free ways. It is possible to pressure a major telecom company by raising a ruckus on social media or by contacting reporters. Conversations Epstein said that he had with AT&T executives suggest as much, as it’s clear the company is monitoring social media for complaints and dispatching high-up people to solve problems when the pressure hits the right level.

Epstein: AT&T should invest in telecom, not movies

Epstein’s ad, an open letter to Stankey, said that AT&T is “a major disappointment” to people in North Hollywood, California.

“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?”

AT&T technicians who came to his house after his ad told him it “would be price-prohibitive for them to hook it up for everybody right now,” Epstein told Ars. Epstein doesn’t totally buy that explanation, pointing out that AT&T has strayed from its core telecommunications business to get into media.

“My argument with them is, ‘You’re a communications business, stay out of the movie business. Invest your money in what you’re supposed to be doing,'” Epstein said. AT&T earned $171.8 billion in revenue in 2020.

Epstein has both AT&T and Charter’s Spectrum Internet service, as we wrote in our previous article. Charter also got in touch with Epstein after the hubbub started last week to provide him with a better modem. When AT&T installed fiber, Epstein had the AT&T technicians set things up so that he can easily switch between AT&T and Spectrum services to compare them. Epstein also pays for AT&T landline phone service.

“Maybe a month from now, if I am satisfied using AT&T only, I’ll drop Spectrum,” Epstein said.

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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