Apr 4, 2024 - Economy

Exclusive: AT&T CEO on massive new investment to shrink digital divide

An illustration of AT&T logo

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

AT&T is putting an additional $3 billion by 2030 toward projects aimed at closing the digital divide in the U.S., the company announced Thursday morning.

Why it matters: U.S. consumers pay some of the highest prices for internet among developed countries.

  • Many Americans want Congress to handle threats to affordable and reliable internet access, Axios' Maria Curi has reported.
  • And one of the existing solutions — the Affordable Connectivity Program — will "undoubtedly" run out of funds this month.

Zoom in: Lower-income and rural households are less likely than wealthier and urban Americans to have high-speed internet, which puts them at a disadvantage in education, entrepreneurship and employment.

  • More than 23 million U.S. households are at risk of losing discounts on their internet access if Congress fails to fund the Affordable Connectivity Program.
  • "Anything that has to do with economic development — is just so fundamental to have scaled access to the internet," AT&T CEO John Stankey tells Axios exclusively ahead of the news.

State of play: The company has a goal of helping 25 million people in the U.S. access and "stay connected to affordable, high-speed internet" this decade, according to the announcement.

  • In 2021, AT&T initially committed $2 billion by 2024 toward this mission and says it has since helped nearly 5 million Americans.

What they're saying: "Unfortunately, we haven't seen this administration come up with the right approach to define how they want to change those programs," says Stankey.

  • "It's not just doing the things that we're announcing this week. It's about getting the policy right to also make sure the public policy matches private investment to solve this problem."

What we're watching: The telecom giant intends to grow the number of "Connected Learning Centers," which include free use of computers and the internet, as well as skills training and mentorship. There are currently 37 across the country.

  • The company also wants to continue expanding its coverage across tribal lands and extend its discounted high-speed internet service to its prepaid and Cricket services.

Our thought bubble: Beyond just getting online, the cost of using the internet's best features is also growing.

  • Newer paid generative AI products from ChatGPT and even potentially Google could exacerbate the digital divide even more.
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