October 27, 2021

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AT&T debuts first of three ‘connected learning centers’ in Dallas with plans to open 20 nationwide

AT&T’s effort to address the digital divide is underway with Thursday’s opening of a downtown Dallas education center aimed at assisting mostly low-income families left behind by gaps in affordable, reliable internet availability.

The so-called “connected learning centers” are part of a $2 billion commitment by AT&T to bridge inequities in modern internet infrastructure. AT&T declined to provide the specific amount it’s investing in 20 centers planned nationwide.

In many parts of the U.S., people living in majority non-white neighborhoods and regions with lower incomes lack access to high-speed internet, creating barriers to education for children and to finding employment for adults.

The gap in accessibility became starker when the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to turn to virtual instruction and companies told employees to work from home. In Dallas, which ranks among the worst connected for U.S. cities of its size, the city invested hundreds of thousands to turn library parking lots into internet hot spots and distributed laptops and tablets to students.

Parents wait as Principal Gabrelle Dickson grabs a WiFi hotspot provided by DISD for students at Young Women's STEAM Academy at Balch Springs on April 24, 2020 in Dallas. A district survey found that 30% of families responded that they didn't have internet at home.

AT&T is partnering with Dell Technologies, which is providing 15 computers for each center, the Public Library Association and Black-owned global IT firm Overland-Tandberg, which will provide technical assistance to the centers.

Family Gateway, which supports homeless families, also is on board. The nonprofit is one that’s familiar to Dallas-based AT&T, whose employees have volunteered their time at Family Gateway after work for several years, tutoring the children of families staying there, according to the organization’s president and CEO Ellen Magnis.

AT&T employees will continue to volunteer at the center. The learning centers will be equipped with educational content from Khan Academy and an in-house learning program that includes content from WarnerMedia’s brands like the DC Comics Universe and Cartoon Network.

The company also is giving $50,000 to each nonprofit it partners with to cover additional operational costs.

At Family Gateway, the number of families seeking housing and other assistance from the organization has doubled in recent months as government aid programs ran out.

“This is a big deal for us,” Magnis said of the new learning center.

AT&T Communications CEO Jeff McElfresh described the digital divide as “unacceptable.”

“We’re committed to seeing this all the way to the end,” McElfresh said, while addressing an audience of two dozen gathered for the grand opening of the new center at Family Gateway in downtown Dallas, not far from the company’s corporate headquarters.

AT&T Communications CEO Jeff McElfresh spoke during the opening of the Connected Learning Center at Family Gateway.
AT&T Communications CEO Jeff McElfresh spoke during the opening of the Connected Learning Center at Family Gateway.(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

Brittany McCoy, 27, has been staying at Family Gateway with her husband and two elementary-age children through its supportive housing program since May. The new center’s fast 1-gigabit download and upload speeds allowed McCoy to join Zoom calls and ultimately find a job working at Taco Bell.

“[Previously] I had to go and sit down in the lobby with my kids for hours at a time just so that I could reach the internet,” McCoy said.

By the end of 2021, AT&T will open two more learning centers in central and southern Dallas with additional nonprofit partners as well as in other major cities.

AT&T’s overall three-year, $2 billion commitment to address the digital divide’s effects on education includes a continuation of discounts for internet services that it offers to K-12 schools, colleges and universities. It’s also expanding its free-device programs.

AT&T has faced criticism in the past for contributing to the digital divide by investing in high-speed internet in areas with higher property values. The company’s slowest internet speeds are more likely to be found in areas with higher poverty, according to a pre-pandemic Dallas Morning News analysis of AT&T internet availability.

AT&T said it spent nearly $3.5 billion between 2018 and 2020 upgrading and expanding its networks in Dallas-Fort Worth. It offers fiber internet to nearly 15 million customer locations in more than 90 U.S. metros and plans to double that by the end of 2025.

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