Two years ago, EducationSuperHighway got ready to hang its proverbial hat. The nonprofit said it had achieved its goal of ensuring 99 percent of U.S. schools were connected to high-speed internet, a boon to digital learning. Founder and CEO Evan Marwell was even looking forward to a sabbatical after eight years leading the organization.
But then – as we all know all too well – the pandemic hit.
“My phone started ringing and people in DC were calling, the governor’s offices. They said the same thing,” recalls Marwell. “We don’t know how many of [our students] have internet or how to connect them.”
EducationSuperHighway created a tool to help schools identify students who do not have internet access at home and learned a lot more about the digital divide in the process. Rather than shutting down, the organization is launching a new campaign that focuses not on schools, but on the 18.1 million American households where cost is the main barrier to connecting. The plan to achieve that goal is outlined in a new report “No Home Left Offline: Bridging the Broadband Affordability Gap.”
“Despite the historical story of building infrastructure in rural America, two-thirds of the digital divide was that people couldn’t afford broadband connections provided at home,” Marwell says. “We saw that this was a problem that can really be solved, but it will take an effort, as will the effort to connect all the schools.”
Who is affected?
Solving the affordability problem of broadband will take everyone, says Marwell, from Capitol Hill lawmakers who control the federal purse to school districts best positioned to identify students who need Internet access. But the time to act is now, when the pandemic has revealed how deeply the digital divide is affecting those disconnected at home, he argues.
“Our country realized that we would all be worse off if 80 million Americans don’t have access to the Internet,” Marwell says. “We will never again have political will or energy across the spectrum to solve this problem. If we don’t fix it now, I don’t know when we will.”
In its report, EducationSuperHighway identified disconnected communities as those where at least one in four households does not have broadband in their home.
Black and Latino communities are disproportionately affected. African Americans make up 13.4 percent of the national population but 21.1 percent of households in unrelated communities. The gap is even wider for Latinos, who make up 18.5 percent of the national population but 27.6 percent of unaffiliated communities.
Education also plays a role. Those with less than a high school diploma represent 27.4 percent of unconnected households, compared with just 13.3 percent for those with a high school diploma and 4.5 percent of households with a bachelor’s degree or higher.
“Households in America’s most disconnected communities and those with less than a high school education are precisely the households that most need broadband connectivity to find better jobs, raise their children, access affordable health care, and access to the social safety net,” the report says. .
Going beyond consciousness
Raising awareness of low-cost and free broadband programs is part of the solution, EducationSuperHighway officials say in the report. More than 6 million people have taken advantage of the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which gives each ISP a $50 monthly discount. That sounds like a lot of participants, Marwell says, until you compare it to the 37 million people who qualify.
But it takes more than awareness to get people on board. They have to believe that the programs will help them, and they need guidance on how to enroll.
“One of the things we really learned: trust is a big deal,” Marwell says. “People think: this is too good to be true. Are you going to give me free internet? There must be a catch.’”
Families also need help navigating application processes that can be confusing or overwhelming. The EducationSuperHighway report highlights the success of the Clark County School District, which serves the Las Vegas region. The district identified students without Internet access, contacted those homes directly, and established a concierge center to help people sign up with the local Internet service provider. According to Marwell, the strategy has enabled more than 80 percent of students to connect to the Internet at home.
“I recently heard about a district that had 3,000 codes to hand out for free Internet services, and 76 families took them,” Marwell says. “You can’t just do general marketing.”
Have you ever noticed how you don’t have to convince people to use Wi-Fi in coffee shops or hotels?
EducationSuperHighway noticed that too, and part of its strategy for closing the affordability gap is to get free Wi-Fi in multi-family homes. Up to 25 percent of the digital divide could be closed by providing free Wi-Fi in low-income apartment buildings, according to the report. Funding for just those kinds of programs would be covered by the $42.5 billion in broadband infrastructure that is part of the federal infrastructure bill that has yet to be passed.
Marwell says the nonprofit is already testing its apartment Wi-Fi program in Oakland, California, where EducationSuperHighway has set a goal of connecting 5,400 homes in 127 apartment buildings to the Internet. It is also conducting pilot programs with three school districts preparing to launch broadband adoption campaigns with various cities and housing authorities.
“We use those pilots to perfect the program [and] understand what the right steps are.” says Marwell. “That’s the work of the next 18 months, setting the stage to connect people on a large scale.”
In many ways, the nonprofit is tackling an even bigger problem than the one it set out to solve when it was founded, Marwell says. The original goal was high-speed Internet access at approximately 100,000 schools. Now its sights are on more than 18 million households – nearly 47 million people.
That also puts the kibosh on any plans Marwell had for a sabbatical. Maybe in another eight years.