There is a growing need to democratize access to the Internet. The importance of this in providing a path to education, job re-skilling and training, income-earning opportunities, municipal services, and more is unquestioned. However, democratizing access is a complex task. Rural areas are typically underpopulated, and the economics of installing and operating the requisite connectivity infrastructure is costly, which makes it challenging for operators to recoup profitably over a reasonable amount of time.
Recent legislation to lower the cost of broadband services for low-income Americans is helping. However, more needs to be done, and AT&T is stepping up to tackle the challenge of narrowing the digital divide.
Fiber Investment and Consumer FWA Services
AT&T is investing significantly in its fiber footprint, including in many regions that are currently underserved by broadband connectivity. In late 2022, I was invited to attend a fiber tour in Evansville, Indiana, with CEO John Stankey, which allowed me to witness the company’s efforts first-hand. Evansville is typical of many rural areas that suffer from either a lack of broadband or fewer options that are both expensive and of poor quality from an upload and download speed perspective.
AT&T is taking a novel approach, investing in bringing fiber both in-ground and—less expensively—over aerial lines where it makes sense to consumers in rural communities. This effort equates to a longer-tail payback period for the related infrastructure that is deployed and serviced. Still, it supports the establishment of a footprint that can serve a community for decades to come. In short, AT&T is overinvesting up front and, in the process, is willing to amortize its investment over likely twice the length of time compared to more densely populated areas. It’s a costly move, but one that can position the company for service revenue long-term, given that fiber supports both broadband and critical backhaul for 5G mobile services.
Fixed wireless access (FWA) services are likely the first “killer” 5G use case to emerge. Subscriber growth for FWA is skyrocketing in the United States and the rest of the world, buoyed by FWA’s ease of DIY setup within the home. Because setup doesn’t require the carrier to send out a technician in a truck, this also significantly reduces the operational expense associated with FWA service. AT&T has a long-established business FWA service, and in late 2023 it launched its 5G consumer Internet Air offering. Initially available in select markets, I expect this 5G FWA consumer service to expand this year, especially as AT&T continues its 5G mid-band spectrum rollout, which promises to deliver impressive performance, propagation, and capacity for both mobility and wireless broadband services.
AT&T’s Connected Learning Initiative
Delivering connectivity services to the underserved is just the first step. What is also urgently needed is digital literacy training. To this end, AT&T dedicated $2 billion at the beginning of 2022 to address what the company refers to as an “opportunity gap” for Americans without Internet access. Dubbed “Connected Learning,” AT&T’s initiative has registered some impressive results to date:
- In total, 787,000 people have been provided with digital resource training.
- Over 258,000 students have participated in learning with The Achievery through a catalog of nearly 1,000 learning units.
- More than 280,000 people have used AT&T digital literacy tools, courses, and workshops to build skills and confidence in safely and responsibly using technology.
- More than 244,000 people have utilized AT&T virtual digital literacy tools and courses, and more than 37,000 people have attended in-person digital literacy workshops.
- AT&T has opened 34 Connected Learning Centers, with plans to expand to more than 50 centers across the United States by mid-2024.
- Since 2021, AT&T has distributed more than 114,000 computers and Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide to students and families in need.
AT&T’s Connected Learning initiative is a model for implementation worldwide to ensure digital inclusion. Not every communication service provider has the same financial resources as AT&T, but there are opportunities for joint public and private initiatives to fund similar programs. Ultimately, providing digital literacy training together with high-quality Internet access is crucial, given the surprising number of people who have yet to use a web browser, smartphone, tablet, or personal computer.
AT&T is investing substantially in broadband connectivity and digital literacy, and the long-term benefits are powerful. Access to connectivity opens up new employment opportunities and serves as a cornerstone for economic prosperity and commerce. AT&T’s deep investments in both could also pay dividends in the longer term through new subscriber growth, loyalty, and service revenue. With all that said, bridging the digital divide is the right thing to do for society as a whole, and AT&T is leading by example.