By Ed Gillespie, Senior Executive Vice President of External & Legislative Affairs
As a country, we have weathered an extraordinary year. The pandemic laid bare fissures and inequities that we will be addressing for a long time to come. One of the many lessons learned – if there was ever any doubt – is the critical need to stay digitally connected to our work, our schools and our family and friends. And yet many Americans still lack essential broadband connectivity.
There is no magic broadband bullet, but AT&T has been at the forefront of keeping our customers and communities connected, working to close the homework gap and address both economic and digital divides. Over the last 12 years, through our Aspire program, we have invested over $600 million to bolster educational programs in under resourced schools and communities. And now that the classroom has gone digital, we are refocusing our efforts to expand student connectivity while working with stakeholders to advance policies that will help expand and sustain reliable broadband connectivity for all Americans.
To support remote learning during the pandemic, since March we have connected nearly 400,000 students and teachers across 44 states with agile mobile connectivity; and we remain actively engaged with local leaders, K-12 school districts, and colleges and universities as we continue to expand access to our highly reliable and dynamic wireless solutions. Today, we are announcing a new education initiative that will build on these efforts and move us closer to closing both the homework gap and the home connectivity gap.
Through December 29th, we are lowering the cost of learning connectivity and offering a two-year, $15-a-month unlimited wireless data plan, with a free hot spot, for students at more than 135,000 schools across the U.S. For all the dedicated teachers across the country, we are offering free service to support their virtual classrooms that will come with products to filter unsafe content and guard against malicious sites to protect both students and teachers while they are online. We are also offering teachers a discount on their personal wireless service.
In addition, today, we are announcing a new $10 million contribution and collaboration with Connected Nation that will provide free internet connectivity and devices to underserved communities across the country. With these dollars, we hope to better enable distance learning by the most vulnerable students and those most likely to be left behind.
This contribution adds to our previously launched $10 million distance learning fund, which included an initial $1 million donation to Khan Academy to expand online learning resources for parents, students and teachers. In addition, we launched a $250,000 matching donation program to support special needs distance learning projects in low-income school districts that has impacted more than 80,000 students in underserved communities to date.
Other programs we’ve launched to expand connectivity include:
Closing the homework connectivity gap is a top national priority, and I’m proud that AT&T continues to do its part to keep students connected to their teachers with the support necessary to help make remote learning for everyone a reality. But industry can’t close the gaps alone.
As we have voiced over the last several months, Congressional action is needed to update, modernize and fund federal Universal Service programs so they can more effectively address persistent gaps in broadband availability, affordability and adoption. For example, we’ve made specific proposals for modernizing the Lifeline program to more seamlessly support broadband connectivity for low-income households and we have argued for more aggressive action to address the rural availability gap in a technology-neutral manner.
The spotlight of the pandemic has made clear that it’s time for a comprehensive policy approach that will set this country on a path to sustainable, accessible and affordable broadband connectivity for every individual, in every community, across the U.S.