Nearly forty percent of the world’s population does not have access to the internet. It’s a startling statistic, given many of us take our digital rights for granted. As a technology analyst focused on networking and security, the existence of what is commonly referred to as the “digital divide” is a passionate topic on a personal front. My father was raised on the banks of the Amazon River in the small town of Fordlandia, Para Brasil, in the early 1940s. There were little to no essential utilities that existed then, and today much of the region is still the same, including a lack of basic connectivity. That’s simply unacceptable.
In my mind, access to the internet is as vital as the air we breathe and the water we drink. Connectivity can facilitate personal economic prosperity, drive social inclusion, and better lives with access to essential services such as telemedicine, distance learning, and more. For this reason, I am embarking on travel to four parts of the world. I plan to chronicle what a select number of companies are doing to solve the digital divide dilemma, including AT&T. If you would like to learn more, you can read more about the focus of my first book – The Human Network.
Rural America is one of the regions to be featured in my book, and I recently spent time with AT&T in Evansville, Indiana, on a fiber tour with CEO John Stankey. I want to share my insights from the trip and some additional perspectives on AT&T's approach to bridging the unconnected and facilitating digital literacy.
Evansville fiber tour
The visit to Evansville marked my first steps into the state of Indiana. The city is beautiful and picturesque, situated on the banks of the Ohio River as the county seat of Vanderburgh County, with a vibe that might be best described as Smallville ripped from the pages of DC Comics. But before jumping into the tour details, it would make sense to provide some background on how it all started about nine months ago.
Last October, Vanderburgh County went through an exhaustive selection process, eventually choosing AT&T to supply fiber-based broadband services to 20,000 homes and businesses in mainly unincorporated areas underserved with connectivity for decades. The challenge in the past in bringing broadband to nearly 1/3 of the counties unconnected has been one of economics, balancing lighter population densities and recouping the required investment of installing the necessary infrastructure. Exiting the pandemic, the county was able to leverage funding from the American Rescue Plan and, with AT&T's help, launch the nearly $40M project. From my perspective, it's a model for other rural areas of the United States. In this instance, AT&T invests 2/3 of the required capital upfront and Vanderburgh County 1/3 in a private/ public partnership. It's a win-win – the county reaps the benefit of extending connectivity to its citizenry, and AT&T establishes a base from which it can eventually recoup and monetize future services for consumers and agricultural businesses. AgTech can be a robust platform that has the potential to dramatically increase crop yields, improve sustainability, and revolutionize farming and ranching. However, reliable and robust connectivity is a necessary requirement.
Now, on to the fiber tour! With only one other invited journalist, Scott Moritz from Bloomberg, I spent the day with Mr. Stankey. We toured a neighborhood during an active installation, attended a round table discussion involving state, county, and city leadership and local businesses, witnessed two AgTech demos, made a visit to an AT&T fiber yard to spend time with employees in the field, and a final stop at McCutchanville Elementary School for a discussion about lessons learned during the pandemic in light of inadequate broadband. It was an eye-opening experience to see the depth of AT&T's commitment to the project as well as Mr. Stankey’s investment of personal time to listen to the needs of both customers and employees and translate that into an overarching plan to bridge the digital divide in the southern part of the Midwest state.
I enjoyed my time with Mr. Stankey. I found him incredibly bright, with a keen focus on the business and very deep technically as a former engineer. He also has a great sense of humor that is disarming and makes him highly approachable, leading one of the world's largest companies.
A Triple A plan
I couldn’t resist a baseball analogy, given it's the month of October and down to the wire for many major league baseball teams post-season play, including my Houston Astros! In my experience in corporate America, every great program begins with a great plan. AT&T broadly (pun intended) anchors its broadband plan in three key areas – access, adoption, and affordability.
Access focuses on identifying underserved areas such as Vanderburgh County and determining the mix of private/ public partnership investment required and connectivity – both fiber and 5G fixed wireless access services. One size does not fit all, and I applaud the company’s approach in this regard.
Adoption focuses on education on the merits of broadband and how it can support employment, learning, reskilling, and healthcare. AT&T is investing significantly to ensure digital literacy is commensurate with access. Before I visited Evansville, I spent time with other AT&T executives to learn more about the company's Connected Learning Centers initiative. It is a joint venture with not-for-profit companies, with a goal of opening twenty locations by the end of this year. Centers are equipped with fiber, Wi-Fi, and Dell Technologies desktop computers and displays with webcams to facilitate virtual learning. AT&T has also created The Achievery, a free digital learning platform to help students and families participate in digital learning and gain digital literacy skills.
Finally, affordability is key, especially in many rural areas of the country where wages are lower than in major metropolitan areas. AT&T’s national pricing structure for its fiber services helps immensely by not penalizing lower populated regions, and federal government subsidies also play an essential role in lowering the barrier to access.
Bridging the digital divide and accelerating digital literacy is a complicated problem. It will require public and private partnerships, innovative planning, and flawless execution. AT&T's playbook may be in its early stages, but it can serve as a compelling model. It is worth noting that AT&T is dedicating $2B over three years (2021 to 2023) to support all these efforts. Often, half the battle is determining where to begin the journey. Suffice it to say AT&T is well on its way.
Disclosure: My firm, Moor Insights & Strategy, like all research and analyst firms, provides or has provided research, analysis, advising, and/or consulting to many high-tech companies in the industry, including AT&T, cited or related to this article. I do not hold any equity positions with any companies cited in this column.