Investors Challenge AT&T on Digital Equity for Low-Income Americans

Investors question AT&T’s commitment to serving low-income communities with affordable and accessible broadband internet  

Shareholders of AT&T Inc. are pressing the company to “review and publicly report on AT&T’s progress toward providing Internet service and products for low-income customers,” after the company committed to offering an affordable access program for low-income customers last year.

The shareholder proposal, filed by Zevin Asset Management and co-filed by Arjuna Capital, points out the stark digital divide that exists throughout America today, stating that 34 million Americans still do not have access to fixed high-speed Internet, with the majority of affected residents being poor, people of color, elderly, or rural residents.

While the “Access from AT&T” program was launched with the goal of offering low-cost wireline home Internet to qualified households, thousands of AT&T customers may not qualify because service in their neighborhoods is so slow they fall outside merger conditions, according to the proposal. The company has stated it is “working to expand the eligibility process of ‘Access from AT&T’,” but has not disclosed how it plans on doing so.

“AT&T is missing out on an opportunity to build its reputation and serve some of the 34 million Americans who are still left out of our high speed Internet economy,” said Pat Miguel Tomaino, Associate Director of Socially Responsible Investing at Zevin Asset Management. “Offering low-income broadband is the right thing to do, and in this uncertain regulatory climate, it will show policymakers that AT&T can be trusted to keep its promises.”

Natasha Lamb, Managing Partner at Arjuna Capital, said “There is an opportunity gap in this country by way of the digital divide and AT&T sits at a key access point. Investors want to ensure AT&T meets its legal obligation to provide access, but more importantly that the company expands the economic opportunity such access affords.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) concluded that broadband is not being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. Research shows that increased broadband Internet access provides socio-economic benefits, increases economic growth, provides better access to health care, and encourages civic participation. The FCC reports that 44 percent of low-income mobile broadband consumers had to cancel or suspend their service due to financial constraints.

“Having the ability to access high-speed Internet is a necessity in the 21st century, and a critical element in gaining access to health care, affordable housing, and quality education,” said Michael Connor, Executive Director of Open MIC, a nonprofit organization that works with shareholders in media and tech industries. “The Internet is vital for not only gathering information, but also dispersing it. As one of the largest multinational telecommunications conglomerates in the world, AT&T has a responsibility to help their low-income customers have adequate Internet access.”  

Zevin and Arjuna are seeking a report on AT&T’s progress on digital equity initiatives which would include “to what degree the Company has time-bound goals to enroll low-income broadband customers; participation in government subsidy programs aimed at potential customers; how many people currently participate in ‘Access from AT&T’ and other low-income programs; and how AT&T is reaching out to low-income communities where access is limited,” according to the proposal.   

“We simply cannot overlook the importance of the Internet in today’s fast changing world, and a person’s salary should not dictate how accessible it is to them,” Connor said. “As the shareholder proposal clarifies, AT&T has the opportunity to play a crucial role in bridging the digital divide that exists in America today.”

The shareholder proposal, which you can view here, was filed with AT&T earlier this month, and will be voted on at AT&T’s upcoming shareholders meeting in the Spring.