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FCC questions AT&T for halting high-speed fiber deployment before net neutrality decision

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The FCC has asked AT&T for more information about its decision to halt the rollout of its high-speed fiber network until net neutrality rules are decided. It's asking AT&T to provide documents regarding the profitability of fiber deployment, its plans to limit fiber deployment, what its fiber network currently looks like, and how many households it actually planned to deploy fiber to in the first place. AT&T's decision to halt fiber rollout is effectively a threat, telling the FCC that strict net neutrality rules would harm the type of broadband investment that it so wants to see. The commission's inquiry is likely going to size up that threat — and see how this might impact AT&T's investment should its merger with DirecTV go through.

"We are happy to respond to the questions posed by the FCC."

For its part, AT&T claims that the fiber halt is all a matter of being responsible with its money. "You're doing multi-billion-dollar investments and you really have no clarity in terms of how those investments will be regulated," AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said on Wednesday. "That can have no effect other than to cause one to pause." AT&T first announced its plans to expand its one-gigabit-per-second fiber service back in April, saying then that it was examining upward of 100 locations to roll it out. All of those are now on hold. AT&T also committed to bringing fiber connections to 2 million households if its merger with DirecTV goes through and plans to follow through on that regardless of the FCC's decision.

"We are happy to respond to the questions posed by the FCC in its review of our merger with DirecTV," an AT&T spokesperson says. "As we made clear earlier this week, we remain committed to our DirecTV merger-related build out plans."

AT&T is right that it halting a fiber rollout is not something that the FCC wants to see. But there remains big questions, like how extensively AT&T actually planned to deploy fiber or whether regulation would actually remove its profit incentives. And while this is in part about net neutrality, the commission is specifically inquiring today because of AT&T's pending merger with DirecTV, which it is currently in the middle of reviewing. The commission's questions, hopefully, will get to the bottom of these questions and figure out whether AT&T has actual concerns or if this is all just a bluff.