Charting the Path Forward on Digital Equity

Caroline Van Wie, VP – Federal Regulatory
May 16, 2022
Broadband Access and Affordability

Charting the Path Forward on Digital Equity

As our CEO, John Stankey, recently said, “Today, in one of the richest nations on earth, millions of Americans still cannot connect to high-speed internet due to issues around affordability, availability, or adoption. That must change.”  While the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the vital role U.S. broadband networks play in modern life, it also shined a spotlight on the significant consequences of being on the other side of the digital divide.

To address these challenges, last year a bipartisan Congress passed the Infrastructure Act providing unprecedented funding to close the digital divide for all.  The funds appropriated create a once-in-a-generation opportunity to connect all Americans, whether they’ve lacked access to broadband because of availability or challenges surrounding adoption.

AT&T looks forward to playing a central role in this historic undertaking.  We’ve already invested billions of dollars to deploy fiber-based broadband to about 17 million locations, and we plan to nearly double that coverage to 30 million locations by 2025, adding 3.5 to 4 million new locations this year alone.  As part of this massive expansion, AT&T is aggressively pursuing public-private partnerships to bring fiber broadband to unserved and underserved areas of the country, from a rural Kentucky county to tribal lands in Southern California.  We look forward to partnering with other states to connect many more Americans to fiber broadband once Infrastructure Act funding becomes available.

Of course, promoting greater broadband deployment is only part of the solution to America’s digital equity challenges; fostering greater adoption of broadband is equally vital.  The Infrastructure Act addresses this challenge with critical funding programs, including $14B to support a $30/month broadband benefit for low-income Americans (the Affordable Connectivity Program, or “ACP”) and $2.75B to support broadband literacy and inclusion.  AT&T is also deeply committed to driving broadband adoption, committing to spend $2B between 2021-2023 to help those who need it to get connected.  Our “Access from AT&T” product offers eligible customers high speed broadband service for $30/month – which, when paired with the ACP benefit – enables customers to get access to broadband for free.  In addition, we are opening more than 20 AT&T Connected Learning Centers in local community organizations across the U.S. to provide underserved students and families with free access to high-speed AT&T Fiber internet, Wi-Fi, and computers, as well as educational, mentoring and tutoring resources.

In addition to standing up these vital programs, in Section 60506 of the Infrastructure Act, Congress instructed the Federal Communications Commission (Commission) to facilitate equal access to broadband for all Americans by adopting rules to prevent digital discrimination based on race or other impermissible factors.  While AT&T knows of no instances of discrimination based on the proscribed factors, Congress plainly and properly tasked the Commission with preventing and eliminating such intentional discrimination, and we will actively engage with other stakeholders and the Commission as it implements a workable framework to do so over the next 18 months.

With that in mind, we filed comments today in which we outline some key statutory guardrails for the interpretation of this section:

  • Section 60506 must be read consistently with the rest of the Infrastructure Act, which recognizes that government subsidies – not unfunded mandates – are the most effective solution where broadband deployment is economically unfeasible because the private sector lacks a positive business case to deploy broadband facilities and services.
  • Section 60506 instructs the Commission to engage in two distinct but related tasks. First, the Commission should “facilitate equal access to [broadband], taking into account issues of technical and economic feasibility.”  This means that all Americans should have “the equal opportunity to subscribe to an offered service that provides comparable . . .  quality of service metrics in a given area, for comparable terms and conditions.”
  • Second, and as a separate subtask in the effort to facilitate equal access, the Commission must adopt rules to “prevent digital discrimination based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin” and to identify necessary steps to “eliminate” such discrimination. As the Commission develops rules to do so, it should, as with all new regulations, apply these rules prospectively.  Together, the Act’s deployment provisions and Commission rules should ensure equal access to broadband internet access services and eliminate any prospect of improper intentional discrimination.
  • Broadband deployment is a highly capital-intensive and technology-specific undertaking, and every company engaged in the effort must contend with unique capital needs and pressures. Therefore, the Commission’s assessment of “economic feasibility” when it comes to building broadband must be grounded in the individual business’s financial assessment.

Digital equity and empowerment are indispensable to equal economic opportunity, civic engagement, and our democratic institutions.  That’s why AT&T remains deeply committed to helping bridge the digital divide and ensuring that all Americans have access to high-speed broadband.  We look forward to working closely with the Commission to advance equal access to broadband for all Americans.

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