Funding, Sustainable Policy Will Close Digital Divide, AT&T CEO Says

February 24, 2021 by Victoria Turner
John Stankey, CEO, AT&T

WASHINGTON — Any policy aiming to truly address the nation’s broadband access crisis must be accompanied by robust federal funding to ensure these efforts are sustainable, according to one of the country’s top telecom executives.

Speaking at the AT&T Policy Forum on Tuesday, John Stankey, the company’s CEO, went on to say that bridging the digital divide between those who have access to high-speed internet and those that don’t won’t occur until the federal government ensures there’s an adequate amount of bandwidth available for everyone.

Mindful that he was speaking during an ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Stankey said it was a “great testament” to the resilience of the networks and the bandwidth build-outs that had already occurred that allowed the system to withstand a 30% to 40% increase in online traffic over the past 12 months.

However, he said COVID-19 also “exposed where the weaknesses were — in rural and less-populated areas across the U.S. where access is an issue, and in urban areas where affordability is front and center.

If the federal government foes its part to get these disadvantaged communities “over the hum,” the private sector will then be able to supplement these efforts by investing in and building out more infrastructure.”

The Broadband Data Act, which tasks the Federal Communications Commission with cting broadband information needed to better map out areas of broadband availability, passed Congress in March 2019, but was not fully funded until late last year.

Just last week, FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced plans to finally get the data collection going, including the establishment of a broadband data task force. But there’s still a long way to go, and until the data is collected, the FCC won’t know for certain where the specific voids in broadband service are. 

Even then, there will be still another question to address — how households will be able to get discounts on communications services and on some devices.

“This is a national policy issue,” Stankey said.

He explained that the current system of offering consumers discounts in the Telecom sector dates back to the “landline era.”

Federal subsidy programs need to reflect the realities of the communities they serve, Stankey said.

As much as the old system has “served us well,” he said, if “we don’t reform broadband and the lifeline structure, we’re not going to be in good shape.” 

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