The terms Digital Divide and Homework Gap have been front and center over the past year as COVID-19 forced many Americans to work and learn remotely. This historic shift in everyday life resulted in an enormous increase in internet traffic, but unlike networks in other countries that buckled under the pressure, download speeds in the U.S. stayed steady and some actually increased. This is thanks in part to bi-partisan government policies that have promoted private sector investment to the tune of $1.8 trillion over the past 25-years.
Even with this massive private investment, some families still do not have an internet connection at home today. AT&T is helping to close the Digital Divide in several ways. Introduced 5 years ago, Access from AT&T makes the internet more affordable for customers by providing qualifying households and those participating in the National School Lunch Program and Head Start with wireline internet service at $10 or less per month. This voluntary offer from AT&T has no contract or installation fee and it includes in-home Wi-Fi at no additional cost.
In another move to make the internet more affordable for more people, eligible customers are now able to temporarily reduce their monthly broadband costs by taking advantage of the Federal Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB). This government program administered by the FCC will allow tens of millions of eligible households to receive an additional subsidy of up to $50 a month. The monthly cost of broadband – after applying the Emergency Broadband Benefit – can fall to as low as $0 a month.
AT&T is also helping to bridge the availability gap. From 2017-2019, AT&T invested nearly $850 million in our wireless and wireline networks in Kentucky to expand coverage and improve connectivity in more communities. Across the State of Kentucky, we meet the connectivity needs of Kentuckians with our wireless network. In 2020, we added nearly 60 new cell sites to our mobile network and expanded 5G coverage to parts of 53 counties.
We have also expanded access to our fiber-optic network to more than 260,000 homes and small businesses across the Commonwealth. And AT&T has also made broadband available to more than 84,000 homes in some of Kentucky’s most remote areas using fixed wireless technologies. This service uses a fixed-wireless “last mile” connection between the fiber at a cell tower and the customer’s home to provide high-speed Internet access to hard-to-reach or sparsely populated areas.
I’m proud of the work A&T is doing to shrink the Digital Divide and Homework Gap. But there’s more work to be done. First, we must work together to ensure that every Kentuckian who wants an internet connection can get one. We strongly support the President’s goal of connecting every American with broadband. In doing so, government should avoid the wasteful spending that would result from overbuilding networks that already deliver fast, reliable, always-on service, and instead focus on Kentuckians who lack a meaningful internet connection.
Second, Congress could act now to ensure sustainable funding for low-income residents by permanently funding Lifeline through congressional appropriations. In a fully modernized program, the FCC should establish electronic Lifeline benefit accounts for participating consumers and directly deposit benefits into these accounts. Lifeline consumers could then use these benefits to help purchase the broadband services that best meet their needs.
By working together, we can bridge the digital divide and connect our country to fuel innovation and create a better future for every American. It’s time to move forward and grow a stronger, more connected economy with broadband policies that reflect the digital age. Kentuckians are counting on us.