Closing the Digital Divide
Authored by John English and Lauren Womack
Today, almost 43 million Americans lack access to internet broadband services. The U.S. has long recognized that its citizens and its economy benefit from having a ubiquitous communications system, so closing the digital divide is in our national interest. The federal Interstate Highway System initiative that began in the 1950s helped to connect all U.S. citizens physically, making coast-to-coast transportation safer and more efficient and driving growth nationwide. Likewise, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) instituted the Universal Service Fund (USF) in the 1990s based on the principle that all Americans should be able to connect digitally, with access to communications services.
But that is just the U.S. Globally, almost half of the world’s population does not have access to the internet. So what does universal service mean in today’s world? Most people now would say that a cell phone and an additional internet-capable device, such as a personal computer or tablet, is the minimum in terms of communications devices necessary for functioning. And those devices must be connected by wireless and/or wired communications networks and have an affordable or subsidized service plan. After all, more than 90 percent of its users access the internet via a mobile device.
What the World Needs Now
The following are just some of the requirements and current initiatives for connecting the global population via universal service.
Expanding 5G’s role: Communications service providers (CSPs) and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) aim to make 5G networks and services more available to underserved populations. At a recent Big 5G event in Denver, Colorado, multiple CSPs mentioned initiatives to provide expanded coverage to rural areas, not only with terrestrial networks but also with low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, and by offering less expensive services. Additionally, movement to the cloud with 5G provides carriers with cost-effective compute resources, flexibility, and agility to increase service velocity, which can help CSPs deliver services to underserved populations.
Creating sustainable networks and evolving their development to serve all populations: OEMs and other organizations at the Big 5G event, namely the Next G Alliance, raised the need to recycle equipment from smartphones to network equipment to increase the usable communications equipment—not only to expand the connected population but also to conserve the environmentally sensitive materials used in the construction of these products. Indeed, reuse and recycling of network gear helps CSPs deliver network services more cost-effectively to all their customers and potential customers.
Network planning: Underserved populations are everywhere, from urban to suburban to rural areas, so no one-size-fits-all approach will work for expanding networks. Today and going forward, CSPs will have to employ all the technologies at their disposal—from fixed/cable, cellular, and Wi-Fi to LEO satellites—to reach these populations wherever they are physically located. Deploying this infrastructure is extremely costly, especially in the radio access network (RAN), so network planning tools such as propagation modeling are key to understanding how new 5G radios can be most efficiently deployed.
Service delivery: “Service for all” means delivering high-quality communications services to everyone. Otherwise, underserved populations will continue to be underserved. CSPs must have visibility to the communications services they extend: They cannot manage and maintain what they cannot see. Moving to a cloudified network—be it public, private, hybrid, or multicloud—along with maintaining legacy physical networks is extremely complex. That complexity, along with the myriad of access technologies, makes the task even more complicated. Accordingly, CSPs must have a service assurance solution (along with artificial intelligence/machine learning analytics) that supports any technology, any vendor, and any service.
It Takes a [Big] Village
Closing the digital divide will, as the cliché says, take a village. In the U.S., for example, the government can provide the funding for subsidies and institute policies such as USF to create an updated directive for CSPs to ensure all Americans have adequate communications, supported by the Biden administration’s recently passed Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. But CSPs will be providing the communications services, and their vendors will be providing the gear to operate and manage these networks. Each player in the industry can do its part to support this effort and collectively move the country toward achieving this goal.
As part of our dedication to demonstrating leadership in digital inclusion, which is one of the four pillars outlined in our environmental, social, and governance (ESG) report, NETSCOUT supports projects in the communities in which it operates—nationally and internationally—with funding, innovation, equipment, and Guardians to close the digital divide. In 2020, for example, a team of 10 volunteers from the Bengaluru office engaged with the Sparsha Trust to teach underprivileged students new skills in IT infrastructure and the Microsoft Office suite. The children learned better ways to maintain their computer lab and developed skills to teach other children. NETSCOUT provided a $10,000 grant as part of our team volunteer grant program.
In our home state of Massachusetts, we created a partnership with Tech Goes Home to support that organization’s digital inclusion programs in Roxbury. In addition to a $100,000 cash grant in both 2020 and 2021, employees around the world volunteered to create and translate tutorials for the program’s digital learning courses.
Near our offices in North Texas, through the Communities Foundation of Texas, employees awarded a $10,000 grant to the CARDBoard Project and Dallas Innovation Alliance to create an internet and technology support line in support of their (em)Powerment initiative for local communities that struggle to get connected, with access to laptops and hotspots and training for how to use these devices and troubleshoot problems. As part of this effort, Guardian volunteers reviewed and translated instructions and tutorials and will make recommendations on processes for the help desk.
Also, thanks to employee involvement from our office in Madrid, Spain, in February we are sponsoring the student-led Newset Datathon, a joint effort between IE University and Women in Machine Learning and Data Science. The goal of this gender-inclusive datathon is to break stereotypes and give greater visibility to new talent.
In addition to the projects mentioned here, we anticipate and look forward to many more employee-led efforts for making our shared world a better place in 2022.
The challenge of extending communications to all will take a concerted effort by industry, government, and the public at large. But the benefits of this effort are truly myriad, from economic growth, to improved education and medical services, to promoting social equity.
Read about our ESG and DEI initiatives here: https://www.netscout.com/press-releases/netscout-environmental-social-governance-report