Working Together to Bridge the Digital Divide
By: Joseph Divis
Interim President - AT&T New Jersey
This past year crystalized the importance of connectivity – for teaching and learning, healthcare, work, socializing with family and friends, and even legislating. It also reminded us that we have much work to do to bridge the digital divide so that New Jerseyans of all ages have access to broadband connections.
Achieving our shared goals will require a commitment to ongoing collaboration among the private and public sectors – state and federal.
One of the ways AT&T works to achieve this goal is by investing in our network in the Garden State. From 2017 to 2019, we invested more than $1.3 billion in our wireless and wired networks in New Jersey. These investments improve availability, reliability, coverage, speed and overall performance for residents and businesses in the state.
Another way we are working to achieve this goal is through a $2 billion, three-year commitment we announced earlier this week to help bridge the digital divide through low-cost broadband offers, participation in the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, and community investment.
The American Rescue Plan, combined with last year’s COVID stimulus legislation, is delivering a significant infusion of federal funding to close the broadband availability gap – and further close the digital divide. Lawmakers can take action to ensure those funds are used to bridge the digital divide -- effectively and equitably.
For example, policies and mechanisms to distribute these funds can be formulated according to several guiding principles:
- Funding should be designed to get broadband service to the most people who are unserved and likely to remain unserved, in the most cost-effective and efficient manner possible.
- While policymakers are appropriately focused on increasing broadband availability, it is equally important to dedicate resources towards encouraging broadband adoption or subscribership.
- Government funding programs should be carefully crafted to not interfere where the market is working, nor should they replace opportunities where the market can work. Broadband networks are expensive to deploy, maintain, operate, and upgrade. If a government-owned network struggles or fails, the ultimate burden will fall on local taxpayers. Scaled commercial networks are, moreover, superior at following cost curves down, innovation curves up, detecting and remediating cybersecurity risks, and having the wherewithal and scale to deploy and redeploy assets flexibly, reducing stranded facilities and enhancing disaster recovery.
- Accurate mapping is critical to ensure that government funding is targeted to reach specific unserved locations. Given the FCC broadband mapping initiative will show where broadband is and is not available on a location-by-location basis, there is no need for the states to expend additional funding to create duplicative state maps.
Lawmakers, organizations like CCSNJ, community groups and all interested citizens in New Jersey can also help ensure that the digital divide is closed by supporting several reforms at the federal level.
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.
In addition, the National Urban League recently released a report on “Connecting and Uplifting America.” The report focuses on a singular and essential question: “How can the tools of the information economy be employed to create a more equitable and inclusive society.” Read more about this bold plan and AT&T’s efforts to drive us toward a more equitable and connected future.
As noted, AT&T also announced that we will participate in the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program and will be offering low-income customers additional options for discounted broadband services. We expect the FCC will offer more details soon, including information on when consumers can begin to enroll.
AT&T stands ready to work with leaders across New Jersey and in Washington to craft comprehensive, thoughtful, and sustainable public policies to better connect our families, schools and communities.