From spectrum to savings
Tackling the digital divide
Back in the day, finding a job required a lot of leg work. You would stroll past businesses looking for “Help Wanted” signs, check the newspapers every day for employment ads, or pursue tips or referrals from acquaintances. Today, the job search is very different. Employers require jobseekers to email their resumes or apply online instead of in person. Job postings are found on social media instead of in the classifieds.
But what about people who don’t have easy access to the internet or who don’t have a computer? It is possible to use traditional methods to find employment. But how many opportunities would a person miss if their job hunt did not include a web search or if they couldn’t complete the online application? In this scenario, the same technology that makes it easier for some to access resources can also isolate and exclude others, revealing the digital divide.
The digital divide refers to unequal access to digital technology, including the internet and the devices needed to connect, such as smartphones and tablets. Without digital technology, one may not have full access to essential government or health services. One is at risk of lacking the skills needed to be successful in academics and the workforce.
The term digital “poverty” is sometimes used to describe this lack of access, implying that the internet is almost as important as food and water in the modern world.
While digital “poverty” seems to me to be an extreme take on the situation, there is no doubt that improving access to digital resources should be a priority. Factors contributing to the digital divide include a lack of infrastructure in rural and remote areas and the ability to afford services and devices.
Recent initiatives address these factors, and we may soon see progress in narrowing the divide.
First, the lack of infrastructure in rural or remote areas to provide adequate coverage is a major contributing factor to the digital divide. Quite frankly, the cost of building infrastructure to offer services to smaller populations in rural areas is quite high. To address this, the Federal Communications Commission reformed its processes to make more spectrum available to providers and create incentives to upgrade infrastructure in rural areas.
On July 10, 2019, the FCC voted to modernize the regulatory framework to make the 2.5 gigahertz spectrum available to providers for advanced wireless services. The spectrum was previously reserved for educational purposes. However, the FCC found that many license holders were not using the spectrum for the intended purpose. The FCC then put the licenses up for auction and in September announced the winning bidders. There was a total of 63 winning bidders across the country and 7,872 licenses sold.
The awarding of these licenses is a huge step for delivering essential services in Guam, the CNMI, and the entire country. IT&E was awarded nine licenses by the FCC, the most licenses in our region. This will enable the provider to connect more users in Guam and the CNMI and deliver faster speeds with lower latency. In other words, less lag. The spectrum is also ideal for next-generation connections, like 5G.
The recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act created the “Internet for All” initiative to provide funding opportunities that boost internet infrastructure, as well as to teach digital skills and provide the necessary technology to access the internet for residents in all states and territories, including Guam and the CNMI. This includes $42.45 billion in grants for the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program; $1 billion for the Enabling Middle Mile Broadband Infrastructure program; $1.44 billion for the State Digital Equity Capacity Grant program, and other programs.
According to state fact sheets released by the White House in August, Guam and the CNMI will each receive a minimum allocation of $25 million to help provide broadband coverage.
Another obstacle to accessing the internet is the cost to the user. Some households simply cannot afford it. While smartphones are available at a wide range of price points, low-income households are less likely to have home internet, multiple devices, or a device other than a smartphone, like a tablet or laptop. This means that their use of the internet is limited to activities that can be done easily on a smaller screen.
As one can imagine, trying to prioritize the use of one or maybe two smartphones could be challenging for any family. This can prevent adults from easily applying for jobs or government services. This increases the “homework gap” in which low-income students cannot comfortably complete assignments or access materials that require the internet.
To address the issue of cost, the Lifeline Program has been available for some time to provide access to essential communications services like home internet and phone. Under this program, eligible households can sign up for low-cost internet and home phone plans or bundles at participating providers.
In March 2022, the FCC launched the Affordable Connectivity Program to provide eligible households with a $30 monthly discount on home internet and mobile data plans and a $100 discount on one tablet, laptop, or desktop computer from participating service providers.
There has also been a movement to provide public access to digital technologies through local libraries. This would benefit both low-income households and households that are not eligible for government programs. With funding from the American Rescue Plan this year, libraries in Guam and the CNMI will be able to continue to update their facilities and services.
All these individual accomplishments and developments are part of an overarching plan to bridge the digital divide. With creativity, cooperation, and determination, we can find a way to successfully bring all populations into the digital age.
Jay R. Shedd is executive vice president of Citadel Pacific, the parent company of PTI Pacific Inc. which does business as IT&E, IP&E. He has more than 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry, business development, sales and marketing.