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Universal Broadband: Essential for an Inclusive Digital Economy

September 1, 2020 Virtual – AT&T WebEx Meeting

The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified connectivity issues in unserved areas. Currently, 18 million Americans cannot get broadband service at home, however, there continues to be strong bipartisan agreement that broadband is the critical infrastructure of the digital age. On September 1, 2020, AT&T hosted a virtual discussion on universal broadband policy, with a focus on challenges and opportunities that currently exist. 

The event kicked off with opening remarks from Ed Gillespie, SEVP External and Legislative Affairs, AT&T.

Sal Khan, Founder & CEO of Khan Academy, joined us to share his perspectives on the potential impact a lack of connectivity may have on an entire generation of students, today and in the future.

A robust panel discussion followed, exploring how we can take advantage of this historic opportunity to close the digital divide once and for all.

The policy panel included:

  • John Hendel, Tech Reporter, POLITICO (Moderator)
  • Amy Hinojosa, President & CEO, MANA
  • Jonathan Spalter, President & CEO, USTelecom
  • Nicol Turner Lee, Senior Fellow in Governance Studies and the Director of the Center for Technology Innovation, Brookings Institution

Event Recap

There’s broad bipartisan agreement that access to affordable and reliable broadband is essential for full participation in today’s digital economy. But how do we get there? Is government working quickly enough to make it happen? And what are the costs and risks to our children, our economy, and our society if we don’t get this right – now? Our most recent AT&T Policy Forum event sought to lend credence to such questions, particularly timely as the U.S. school year begins under unprecedented circumstances.

Ed Gillespie, Senior Executive Vice President of AT&T, opened by noting how the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the need for universal broadband, as the costs of not having access to broadband have become increasingly clear. The pandemic has reaffirmed that broadband truly is about connectivity – connecting students through distance learning to their futures; connecting patients through telemedicine to doctors; connecting employees to their work.

The benefits are clear; now, the gaps have to be closed to ensure every American has access to high-speed broadband connectivity. In some cases, networks have not extended as far as needed into rural America. In others, people simply cannot afford their locally available broadband options. Moreover, these gaps in broadband access disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income Americans – a reality only exacerbated by the economic impact of COVID-19.

It is a time for solutions, and Mr. Gillespie presented several: First, fully fund the Broadband Data Act, to learn and map precisely where households are not connected. Second, in those areas where the return on investment would not justify purely private sector investment for broadband deployment, there should be government support so that all Americans can enjoy the affordable broadband they need in today’s technology-driven world. This support should be distributed, and thus rural broadband deployment be promoted, through an FCC-administered reverse auction. Third, modernize the Lifeline program and convert it to a SNAP-like benefit system to provide flexibility and choice for low-income consumers.

We were honored to also have Sal Khan, founder of Khan Academy, bring his infectious passion for education and innovation to the event’s fireside chat. He began by highlighting the steps Khan Academy took in responding to increased demand during the early days of the pandemic, including stress testing their infrastructure, planning more content, and giving a clear picture of what effective distance learning could look like. Since the pandemic forced schools to shut down in mid-March, Khan Academy has seen about a 300% daily increase in minutes spent on the platform among its users – 30 million minutes per day pre-pandemic to 80–90 million minutes per day.

In Khan’s view, about 10-15% of children remain disengaged from distance learning, with another 30-40% at risk. As he said, “[w]e can’t let this crisis turn into a catastrophe.” The skills of children at risk may atrophy, or they may even lose the pattern of school, a cornerstone to young lives.

The event proceeded with an exceptional panel moderated by Politico reporter John Hendel. Jonathan Spalter of US Telecom voiced his frustration with a general lack of Congressional action to address the gaps in broadband, including home broadband, as well as mobile. He echoed his concerns about the current state of broadband in the country, asking “[w]hen are we going to be able to stand tall and meet the needs of our citizenry and folks all over this country” in order to ensure that no child or parent is without broadband? To that end, Jonathan reinforced that “Congress needs to invest in broadband now [for] every single corner of our country.”

Nicol Turner Lee of Brookings brought a passionate, policy-driven response to the issue. She lamented the lack of Congressional action over the summer and described school superintendents as “battling with health and equity issues, and now battling as to whether they can get the devices they need.”

Data is critical. Schools need to know the broadband capacity within their communities and to become “broadband champions.” She called for broadband to be a first priority, as it is “interrelated with systemic inequality,” citing a McKinsey report warning that Black students could be 10.3 months behind other children if they do not go back to school by January. That’s the heart of this “digital justice” issue and why she believes, “We need broadband now.”

Amy Hinojosa of MANA, A National Latina Organization, began by stating “the word is ‘urgency.’” We have now begun another school year, and yet children and families are no closer to being connected, with children going to restaurants or school parking lots to get the broadband access they need to keep up. She suggested the Federal government “should step in with an emergency broadband benefit” or risk students being left behind. Lamenting that the opportunity of the pandemic has so far not leveraged broadband access for many children in affordable housing, she called for greater coordination between school and other officials on broadband policy and for “ways to reimagine education going forward.”

Whether the issue is education, telehealth, economic development or simple connectivity, universal broadband is essential. This is the time for action, so that no American student, and no American, falls behind.

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