Universal Broadband: Essential for an Inclusive Digital Economy

Crises have a way of bringing underlying realities into sharp relief.  The pandemic is no different.  Imagine going through this time without broadband.  Yet FCC statistics show that 18 million Americans lack access to reliable broadband that enables their full participation in public life — commerce, healthcare, education, information, entertainment, and connections with friends.  Sadly, that figure may be an undercount.

Pandemic or not, that’s no longer acceptable as a policy choice.  To solve this problem, we need to understand the challenges to broadband connectivity and the risks we face from not addressing it.

Light-touch regulation has led to $1.7 trillion of private sector broadband investment since 1996.  This investment has delivered results for most Americans.  But gaps remain, particularly in unserved areas, and they must be filled.  Can industry and government work together to develop solutions?

AT&T believes this is the moment for bold action, for a national commitment to more accessible and reliable broadband connectivity, and for an overhaul of Universal Service Fund programs, including direct appropriations for broadband deployment and adoption.  The current contribution formula is unsustainable, reflecting yesterday’s technology.  It needs a permanent fix.

This will also mean a reform of Lifeline. And it’s time to reform Lifeline benefits distribution, getting service providers out of the middle and expanding consumers’ choices.

Lack of universal connectivity is a threat to our future.  Consider primary and secondary education.  As students return to school, 17 of the top 20 U.S. school districts are online only.  We risk an entire generation falling behind if those students do not have access to reliable and affordable broadband at home.  This problem, the homework gap, is more pronounced among low-income households and in rural areas.

But this is only one visible consequence of our current situation.

Let’s change course and make reliable broadband connectivity a reality for everyone.  Smart government programs can address the structural causes of the digital divide.  We can fix this, now.

Join us on September 1 for an AT&T Policy Forum event on “Universal Broadband:  Essential for an Inclusive Digital Economy.” It will feature a fireside chat with Khan Academy founder Sal Khan, a visionary and inspiring leader who is transforming education, and Ed Gillespie, Senior Executive Vice President of AT&T.  We will also have a panel including Amy Hinojosa of MANA, Jonathan Spalter of US Telecom, and Nicol Turner Lee of Brookings; moderated by John Hendel of Politico.  Please register here and join us for this timely event.

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