AT&T vague on details of its $3 billion digital divide pledge

AT&T on Thursday announced with great fanfare that it will spend an additional US$3 billion by the end of the decade on initiatives designed to close the digital divide in the US.

Mary Lennighan

April 4, 2024

3 Min Read

The US telco is building on a three-year, $2 billion commitment it made in April 2021, thereby taking its total spend on digital inclusion initiatives to a $5 billion headline figure.

There are a few hard(ish) facts in its latest announcement, including a goal of helping 25 million people get and stay connected to affordable high-speed Internet by 2030. But much of its message is around work it has already done in setting up Connected Learning Centers (CLC) and the like – and we can probably surmise there will be additional spend in maintaining, and possibly growing, those – and expanding network connectivity, which you could easily argue is its actual job, as a telco.

Its not clear how much, if any, of the $3 billion pot will go towards expanding fibre and 5G networks, but the operator did not miss the opportunity to boast about its prowess in this area, suggesting that network expansion is part of the mix. Certainly, coverage of American Tribal lands is part of the equation, the telco noting that it has increased network coverage in those areas by more than 40% since 2021 and implying that there will be more to come. But we don't have specifics.

The telco also said it is looking forward to participating in funding opportunities through the government's Broadband Equity, Accessibility and Deployment (BEAD) program as part of its – and the country's – broader aim to plug coverage gaps.

The most interesting element of AT&T's new digital divide-fixing spending pledge is linked to the US government's Affordable Connectivity Program.

The programme, which came into operation at the start of 2022, is a federal scheme that offers eligible households up to $30 per month towards the cost of an Internet service – $75 for households on qualifying Tribal lands – delivered via participating ISPs. It also provides discounts on related hardware, such as laptops and tablets.

However, the programme is winding down. It stopped accepting new applications in February and after this month will essentially have run out of funding. The Biden administration has called on Congress to extend funding for the project, but so far no dice.

AT&T says it will continue to lobby government for more funding and, more broadly, to find a long-term solution to support in-need families with the cost of connectivity.

In the meantime, it will retain its Access from AT&T service, initially available under the programme, which provides a home Internet connection for $30 per month, including free WiFi and no deposit payable. It also said it will expand connectivity offers to include mobile services AT&T Prepaid and Cricket, and other "connectivity solutions" as they become available.

Essentially, AT&T is keeping its connectivity packages aimed at low-income households, despite the lack of government funding going forward. That's laudable, of course, although not doing so could be something of a PR nightmare for a major telco. It's not clear how much of the $3 billion pot will be sucked up by these plans though.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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