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Closing the Digital Divide

How government and the private sector can work together

By Alexander Estrada

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At a recent AT&T Policy Forum, CEO John Stankey spoke about how government policy and the private sector can work together to make high-speed internet accessible, affordable, and sustainable for rural and low-income families. 

In a conversation with Steve Clemons of The Hill, the CEO of AT&T outlined the challenges ahead and what the Biden Administration might do to help the private sector increase jobs, educational opportunities, and civic engagement.

Over a year into the coronavirus pandemic, some 30 million Americans still lack adequate high-speed internet access. For Latinos, this “digital divide” is especially acute as schools, businesses, and ordinary relationships have all been transformed through social distancing.

“There are parts of the workforce being left behind and the pandemic has only shined a brighter light on that, as to what kind of work stays, and moves forward with us in this totally digital world,” said Stankey. 

For rural communities, the problem is most often about infrastructure and ensuring that connectivity and access is provided. But for low-income communities, the issue is affordability, and the need for more affordable and reliable access for those currently unable to learn and work from home. Industry leaders and the government can better coordinate on incentivizing investments in infrastructure and broadband to enable low-income and rural communities to have equal access to learning opportunities at home.  

Educators have long warned about the digital divide facing American children, including Latinos. The declining cost of computers has helped shrink the gap. But there’s still a lack of access to technology among students as school districts across the nation have transitioned to remote learning amid widespread shutdowns. And while school districts can obtain some discounted technology and broadband access through a federal program known as E-Rate, the benefit does not extend to take-home computers or wireless hotspots for students.

“Why shouldn’t the E-Rate program acknowledge that learning now is more distributed in nature?” said Stankey. “It could be the schoolhouse in the home, but it also could be educational opportunities that occur off-campus that need to be connected, and infrastructure needs to be put in place. We would very much support thinking of a broader application of E-Rate.”

Another program administered by the FCC is Lifeline, which provides similar discounts for broadband connectivity. Stankey said it’s time to modernize FCC’s Lifeline programs to be more consumer friendly, by increasing monthly support appropriate for broadband service and moving to a more sustainable funding source. He called on Congress to make Lifeline support sustainable through direct appropriations, replacing the unsustainable tax on shrinking interstate telecom revenues.

At the AT&T Policy Forum, Stankey identified some key challenges facing the government and private sector. The first is to identify where broadband is and isn’t available. Last December, new allocations by Congress for precise broadband mapping enabled Acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to form a task force to implement improved national broadband maps. 

Encouraging private investment is paramount to developing more sustainable funding sources that support infrastructure and access initiatives. Since broadband providers have invested nearly $2 trillion since 1996 on communications network infrastructure, Congress and the FCC should maintain policies that incentivize continued investments in broadband connectivity.

Access to reliable internet has become a practical necessity. A Pew survey found that at this time in 2019, 61% of Hispanic adults were home broadband users. At the same time, Hispanic adults were more dependent on smartphone use for connectivity than other groups. Providing opportunities, not only for access, but education and professional advancement is crucial. According to the Migration Policy Institute, even entry-level positions now require some type of digital skill, and four out of five jobs which pay a living wage, accounting for nearly half of the overall labor demand, require more advanced digital skills. To this end, AT&T has worked through its foundation and nonprofit partners at national and local levels to support STEM education in minority communities.

For Stankey, improving technological literacy at urban high schools is critical to building a representative workforce, because “if we don't get graduates that can come out, they can't go to those community colleges to learn those [digital] skills, to become technicians that represent the color of our employee base and the dynamics and characteristics of our customer base.” 

Closing the digital divide is a daunting problem, even as the ubiquity of smartphones has brought more people into the digital realm than ever. In our world of remote work and home learning, it is all too easy to forget those left behind without access to the classroom or a new professional opportunity. Bridging the divide, not only in broadband access, but in how the government and companies like AT&T work together, will remain crucial during and after the pandemic.

According to Stankey, “The time to act is now.”

A graduate of Loyola Marymount University and UCLA, John Stankey joined AT&T in 1985 and has worked in nearly every area of the company’s business. Prior to becoming CEO, he served as President and Chief Operating Officer of AT&T.

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