ISPs, Advocates Team Up on Digital Equity

This year, the nation’s premier digital equity conference had a couple of names at the top of its sponsors list that would have once seemed surprising — Comcast and Verizon.

Indeed, the two Internet service providers (ISPs) were top-level sponsors of Net Inclusion in San Antonio, an event that saw record attendance from digital equity practitioners, librarians, government staffers and more. Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), which organizes the event, said support from ISPs these days represents a significant shift from how things have been for decades.

“It doesn’t feel that long ago that in the field we were promoting signing up for Internet service, but yet the Internet service providers thought we were working against them,” said Siefer, who has been involved with digital equity work for more than 25 years. “We were free marketing for them, but they didn’t want to invest in what we were doing. It never made sense to us.”

This, however, has now changed, and the sponsorship of Net Inclusion is just one example. Siefer also said that ISPs have shown support for digital equity work in other ways, too. They are spending money to sponsor grants, digital navigator programs and other related initiatives. But perhaps even more importantly, Siefer said big telecommunications companies have open lines of communication with digital equity practitioners in the field.

Siefer said, “while it’s not all perfect and rosy,” she now feels like she can get ahold of decision-makers at ISPs when their work shows the companies need to fix a problem. She’s been able to work with AT&T, for example, to get the company to adjust speeds to help more people qualify for federal programs. Digital equity conversations on an NDIA listserv have also directly led to other ISP policy changes.

Of course, not all ISPs are equal in the space. Siefer praised Comcast as the biggest supporter, noting that Verizon and AT&T also make substantial investments. Some other ISPs, however, don’t donate at all, or donate paltry sums that don’t make much of a difference.

Still, across the digital equity space ISP attitudes toward the work have shifted. While the pandemic raised awareness of the need for digital equity to unprecedented levels, Siefer said this shift actually began before the pandemic, when some ISPs started to realize how important digital skills were for both society and for the success of their business. The more people who are trained to use the Internet in meaningful ways, the larger the customer base.

That shift accelerated during and now after the pandemic, with Siefer noting that when she reached out to ISPs about digital equity in the before times, she used to talk with people who’d been on the job for three months — now she talks with VPs.

Comcast, she noted, was perhaps the first ISP to really throw meaningful support behind digital equity work, doing so with grant-making as well as with training their staff on the importance of digital equity work, particularly those who work in external or government affairs.

Sena Fitzmaurice is the senior vice president, government communications for Comcast, and she said that digital equity is considered a core value of the company. Fitzmaurice said that now is a major moment of relevance for digital equity work, with a historic amount of funding for it on the way from the federal government.

As such, the company is supporting the work in many ways, including investing in organizations that train digital navigators. Comcast, she said, has a long history of discounting service for those who need it, and now they are increasingly supporting the educational efforts around adoption, helping folks understand why they need Internet at home in today’s increasingly digital society.

“You have to keep showing people the continued benefit,” Fitzmaurice said. “Show them it’s important for things like health care, and the availability of other services, too.”

Seifer, for her part, said that while digital equity’s relationship with ISPs has vastly improved, it can continue to get better. The digital divide is not a problem that can be solved entirely by ISPs; it’s a community issue. Siefer regularly asks folks who they think will fund digital equity work when the federal investment is gone. People often point to ISPs, to which Siefer replies, “Yes, and …”

Even with advocates and ISPs working together in unprecedented ways, true digital equity remains a problem that must be solved at the community level, taking a deep and lasting commitment to do so.

Related Posts