October 6, 2020 — The National Digital Inclusion Alliance and the Communications Workers of America put AT&T under the microscope during a webinar on Monday as they examined millions of Americans left without affordable broadband.
Specifically, the panelists targeted what they described as “digital redlining” and job cuts that they said were devastating communities and stifling their ability to meet the critical need for broadband infrastructure.
“AT&T’s digital redlining has left communities behind,” said Angela Siefer, executive director of NDIA. They specifically criticized the limited nature of AT&T fiber-to-the-home footprint: The telecommunications giant has made fiber available to fewer than one-third of the households within its footprint.
AT&T largely halted its national build out of fiber to residential homes in mid-2019, after it met Federal Communications Commission imposed conditions, according to a report (PDF) by the Communications Workers of America.
The report critiques AT&T for abandoning rural communities in an attempt to lower capital expenditure, finding that as a result of what it described as redlining, only five percent of household in rural counties where AT&T operates have access to fiber broadband.
Further, CWA found that AT&T prioritizes fiber builds to higher-income neighborhoods: Households with fiber available have a median income 34 percent higher than those with digital subscriber lines.
Meanwhile, people in low-income neighborhoods often pay the same amount for lower-quality and lower-speed internet service that others in more affluent neighborhoods pay to receive fiber broadband.
In addition to failing to build critical infrastructure to all of its consumers, the report said AT&T is cutting and outsourcing jobs – more than 40,000 jobs since 2018, according to a second report (PDF) from CWA.
Outsourcing jobs to subcontractors appears to help AT&T spread legal liabilities to other companies. In a 2012 investigation, ProPublica and Frontline documented that AT&T escaped liability over the death of a tower climber who was working on AT&T equipment because he was employed by a subcontracted company.
The CWA union also raised a grievance of their own on Monday. In the past, AT&T was almost entirely union-represented. The company’s outsourcing of jobs is causing union representation in the telecom industry to decline.
“AT&T wants to look like it’s supporting our communities but it needs to walk the walk”, said Stan Santos, splicing technician at AT&T, urging the company to “provide good jobs and stop relying on contractors.”
Dan Mauer, director of government affairs at CWA, called on Congress to pass the Moving Forward Act, which would put limits on the ability of companies to use subcontractors.
Broadband is Affordable for Middle Class, NCTA Claims
According to analysis, the middle class spends on average $69 per month on internet service.
WASHINGTON, November 22, 2022 – Even as policymakers push initiatives to make broadband less expensive, primarily for low-income Americans, broadband is already generally affordable for the middle class, argued Rick Cimerman, vice president of external and state affairs at industry group NCTA, the internet and television association.
Availability of broadband is not enough, many politicians and experts argue, if other barriers – e.g., price – prevent widespread adoption. Much focus has been directed toward boosting adoption among low-income Americans through subsidies like the Affordable Connectivity Program, but legally, middle-class adoption must also be considered. In its notice of funding opportunity for the $42.5-billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration required each state to submit a “middle-class affordability plan.”
During a webinar held earlier this month, Cimerman, who works for an organization that represents cable operators, defined the middle class as those who earn $45,300–$76,200, basing these boundaries on U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics for 2020. And based on the text of an Federal Communications Commission action from 2016, he set the threshold of affordability for broadband service at two percent of monthly household income.
According to his analysis, the middle class, thus defined, spends on average $69 per month on internet service. $69 is about 1.8 percent of monthly income for those at the bottom of Cimerman’s middle class and about 1.1 percent of monthly income for those at the top. Both figures fall within the 2-percent standard, and Cimerman stated that lower earners tended to spend slightly less on internet than the $69-per-month average.
Citing US Telecom’s analysis of the FCC’s Urban Rate Survey, Cimerman presented data that show internet prices dropped substantially from 2015 to 2021 – decreasing about 23 percent, 26 percent, and 39 percent for “entry-level,” “most popular” and “highest-speed” residential plans, respectively. And despite recent price hikes on products such as gas, food, and vehicles, Cimerman said, broadband prices had shrunk 0.1 percent year-over-year as of September 2022.
Widespread adoption is important from a financial as well as an equity perspective, experts say. Speaking at the AnchorNets 2022 conference, Matt Kalmus, managing director and partner at Boston Consulting Group, argued that providers rely on high subscription rates to generate badly needed network revenues.
FCC Advisory Committee Approves Strategies to Advance Digital Equity
In 2021, the FCC charged the council in its mission to prevent digital discrimination.
WASHINGTON, November 8, 2022 – The Federal Communication Commission’s Communications Equity and Diversity Council on Monday unanimously recommended strategies to minimize digital discrimination and advance digital equity, advocating stakeholder collaboration, the promotion of affordable broadband service, workforce diversity initiatives, state and local incentivization of partnerships with small minority and women-owned businesses, and more.
The new report’s three main sections lay out best practices to prevent discrimination by internet service providers, to ensure the equitable dispersal of funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and to advance universal access for marginalized populations, respectively.
The IIJA allocated $65 billion to broadband funding. $42.45 billion from that pot went to the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, which will issue grants to the states based on relative needs. States will subsequently run their own sub-grant processes.
In 2021, the FCC charged the CEDC with assisting the agency in its mission to prevent discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, or disability.
“This was a complex and critically important task for the CEDC, and I thank the members of the three working groups who worked so diligently to provide this expert guidance,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “Earlier this year the Commission adopted a notice of inquiry on preventing and eliminating digital discrimination, and I look forward to incorporating these findings into that effort.”
“I applaud the chairwoman for trusting the council to contribute to the commission’s efforts to gather information from diverse stakeholders across the country,” said Heather Gate, vice president of digital inclusion at Connected Nation and chair of the Communications Equity and Diversity Council.
Not All Affordable Connectivity Enrollees Are Using the Benefit: A Look into 30 Major Metro Areas
‘The percentage of households in major metro areas…using the program is smaller than the percentage of households enrolled.’
Since the launch of the Affordable Connectivity Program last January, millions of households have benefitted from the $30 per month connection subsidy to help pay for their broadband bills. The program serves as a necessary bridge in a failed marketplace, dominated nationally by a small number of regional monopolies driven by shareholders to charge the highest price possible.
Along the way, ILSR and a host of other research and advocacy organizations have been digging into the American Connectivity Program data in order to better understand how the program has operated over the last year, and how we can work collectively to improve education and outreach efforts and make sure as many households as possible will benefit. From this work we created an ACP Dashboard to collect and visualize useful data to support the critical work of digital navigators, nonprofits, and local governments.
Recognizing the Gap
In addition to tracking how much of the $15.5 billion fund ($1.3 billion was carried over from the Emergency Broadband Benefit and $14.2 billion was allocated for the ACP] is left and predicting when it’ll run out (April 2026 at current rates), keeping an eye on state- and zip-code level use and enrollment, and following what types of connections households are using the benefit to pay for, an important part of this work has been tracking data across major metropolitan areas across the country.
As we continue to analyze the data and refine our tools to support work at the local level, we have found that the percentage of households in major metro areas (and likely elsewhere) that are actually using the program is smaller than the percentage of households enrolled in the program.
While a community’s ACP enrollment rate has been understood as an indicator both of its overall need for financial support and the effectiveness of local outreach efforts to sign up eligible households to participate in the ACP, the rate of claimed subscribers reflects the real effect of the program on that community. Here, we take a look at what the gap between enrollment and subscription looks like across 30 major metropolitan areas.
Currently, the major metro areas with the highest ACP enrollment rates are Detroit (58 percent of eligible households enrolled), Cleveland (58 percent), Columbus (55 percent), Baltimore (53 percent), and Los Angeles (52 percent). Only Cleveland, Columbus, and Los Angeles, however, also appear among the top five areas for greatest percentage of eligible households using the benefit (Cleveland: 46 percent claimed subscribers, Columbus: 45 percent, Los Angeles: 41 percent).
When we dive further into the metro area data, we can get some sense of why some cities are succeeding in not only enrolling households, but making sure they are using the benefit. For instance, San Antonio is on the list of top-five metro areas for use, despite being ranked 11th for enrollment.
At present, only 16 percent of enrolled San Antonio residents are not using the benefit. Why? The city has dedicated resources to staffing field organizers, who go door to door in low-income zip codes and talk to residents about the program, offering information both in English and in Spanish. Similar efforts are underway in Los Angeles, where there is only a 12 point difference between enrolled households and those using the benefit. Los Angeles also has a coalition of groups doing their own funded and unfunded community outreach to raise awareness of the program.
On the other hand, the following areas have relatively high enrollment rates but show large discrepancies when looking at the number of claimed subscribers:
Washington, DC: 49 percent of eligible households are enrolled, but only 17 percent are using the benefit.
Atlanta: 49 percent of eligible households are enrolled, but only 17 percent are using the benefit.
Detroit: 51 percent of eligible households are enrolled, but only 19 percent are using the benefit.
Baltimore: 53 percent of eligible households are enrolled, but only 24 percent are using the benefit.
Philadelphia: 48 percent of eligible households are enrolled, but only 20 percent are using the benefit.
Cleveland and Detroit both have an enrollment rate of 58, but Cleveland has a significantly higher percentage of households using the benefit, likely the result of years of dedicated efforts by DigitalC and the Cleveland Foundation to close the digital divide. Portland has the greatest relative discrepancy between enrollees and households using the benefit, with more than two thirds of its enrolled households not using the credit.
Reflecting the Gap in Our Tools
To reflect the significance of these gaps, while an earlier version of our ACP Dashboard focused on enrollment rates, we’ve adjusted our methodology to use the Total Claimed Subscriber number to calculate current ACP usage rates and predict future funding levels. We believe using Total Claimed Subscribers reflects a more faithful representation of usage rates and the rate of funds being depleted. A future iteration of the dashboard may further investigate the discrepancy between percentage enrolled and percentage claimed.
Explaining (and overcoming) this gap between enrollment is important, but we need more data to do so. It’s possible that some ISPs are deciding after some period of time that it’s not worth the resources to administer it and participate. It could also result from families getting enrolled by their ISP but not understanding that the benefit is available to them, or not having the digital literacy skills to use it.
The gap could also result from the way that the FCC verifies households’ eligibility, and regularly de-enrolls households it (sometimes erroneously) decides no longer qualify. We need more granular data from the Universal Services Administrative Company and the Federal Communications Commission to better understand why this gap between enrolled and claimed users continues to grow.
The policy implications and our analysis of the efficacy and future of this program stand: if anything, these numbers reflect less success in education and outreach efforts nationwide.
Check out the ACP Dashboard for more information. Special thanks to Drew Garner for his insight and feedback on the USAC data.
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