EducationSuperHighway relaunches to address 18 million US households unable to afford internet

Nearly 47 million people in the US have access to Internet service but cannot afford to connect to even low-cost broadband plans.
Written by Jonathan Greig, Contributor

National nonprofit EducationSuperHighway announced that it is relaunching this year to take on the challenge of connecting the more than 18 million US households that have access to Internet services but cannot afford it.

EducationSuperHighway was originally focused on closing the connectivity gap in K-12 classrooms across the country. The group was able to solve the issue and planned to sunset the organization in August 2020, CEO Evan Marwell told ZDNet. In 2012, just 10% of the students in America had broadband that was good enough that they could use technology in their classroom, and seven years later, the number was at 99.6%. 

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and thousands of school districts, governors and federal lawmakers came to them looking for help with getting millions of families connected to the internet so that 50 million children could continue to attend school.

More than 15 million students were not able to attend school due to the at-home connectivity gap. This "broadband affordability gap" keeps 47 million Americans offline, is present in every state, and disproportionately impacts low-income, Black, and Latinx Americans, Marwell explained. 

For six months in 2020, EducationSuperHighway worked to get as many children connected as possible, helping more than three million kids get connected. But Marwell said their work over those months -- when they assumed the pandemic would end fairly quickly -- revealed that the problem for most households was not access.  

For many years, the debate was over public and private investment in broadband infrastructure. But now, the main issue for most unconnected households is affordability. Almost 65% of unconnected households have access to a home broadband connection but cannot afford it. 

The organization released a report that found the broadband affordability gap is the largest portion of the digital divide in 43 states. The report notes that previous efforts to get households connected through federal broadband affordability programs have failed for a variety of reasons related to awareness, trust and enrollment barriers.

"Building a robust digital inclusion ecosystem requires free and low-cost home broadband for those who cannot afford it and overcoming the barriers to broadband adoption," said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. "As we saw during the pandemic, these solutions are possible by investing in local solutions and building on the trusted community relationships that are essential to effective digital inclusion work."

Marwell said the digital home divide had been closing by about 1% each year due to the fact that ISPs did not have data on who couldn't afford connections and because there was little political will to address the issue financially. 

But since the onset of the pandemic, both Democrats and Republicans in Congress have realized the need for internet to be available. They have designated $20 billion to create a new broadband affordability and adoption program, the largest one the nation has ever created. There is even more money planned for broadband programs in the Infrastructure Bill making its way through Congress. 

"The pandemic made everyone in America understand how bad it is and how hard it is to participate in our society, both economically and educationally, to access government services, to get healthcare, etc., if you don't have home broadband," Marwell said.  

"If you think about the digital divide in America today, there's about 28 million offline households. About 18 million of them have access to infrastructure, and about 7 million of them don't, and then there's 3 million of them who do but don't want the internet. So 23% of households in America don't have internet at home, and of that, two-thirds of it is about affordability."

Marwell said that in addition to the funding from the federal government, nonprofits, community-based organizations, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and state and local governments have all gotten involved in the effort. 

"We must seize this moment to accelerate progress in closing the digital divide," Marwell said. "That's why today we are launching a bold new mission to tackle the broadband affordability gap -- which has emerged as the number one barrier to closing the digital divide. Congress is stepping up, making resources available to close the affordability gap, and ISPs continue to increase the availability and speed of affordable broadband plans. We must now remove the barriers that keep low-income families from connecting or risk wasting this opportunity to ensure no home is left offline."

Marwell laid out multiple efforts his organization plans to kickstart as a way to address the issue. EducationSuperHighway will be launching new broadband adoption and free apartment Wi-Fi programs to help low-income Americans overcome the obstacles to signing up for federal broadband programs and home broadband service.

He said the program is targeted at the most unconnected communities in the country, which he defined as areas where at least 25% of people don't have internet. This represents about 11 million households, according to Marwell. EducationSuperHighway will gather more data about the issue for lawmakers and ISPs to know where to target funding. They are also creating programs that actually get people connected. 

"Once we've got the money in place to pay for things, the challenge is that historically less than 20% of the people who have access to subsidy programs actually sign up for them. Yet during the pandemic, we saw school districts like Las Vegas' Clark County School District get north of 80% of their families signed up," Marwell explained.

"The way they did it was by setting up what we now call broadband adoption centers that figured out which families need to be connected, did outreach to them, got them on the phone and then helped them actually sign up for the broadband service."

One of their strategies is to create a model for broadband adoption centers across the country and then to use funding from the Infrastructure Bill to staff those and get people signed up, Marwell said. 

The organization is also partnering with the City of Oakland to deploy free Wi-Fi in low-income apartment buildings and establish a broadband adoption center to help eligible households enroll in the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Marwell compared the effort to the free Wi-Fi that millions of people use at airports, libraries, coffee shops and more. They have already deployed eight of these apartment building Wi-Fi systems, and the data shows that nearly 25% of those 18 million unconnected households live in apartment buildings.

"Public-private partnerships, exemplified by the success of #OaklandUndivided, are critical to achieving equity in cities across the country," said Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. "Oakland is proud to partner with EducationSuperhighway, a critical leadership partner of #OaklandUndivided to remove affordability barriers and dramatically increase broadband access for our most vulnerable populations and close the digital divide for good."

In addition to the work in Oakland, Marwell mentioned plans to work with the housing authority in New York City and other cities on a similar project. 

Part of EducationSuperHighway's work will also involve helping ISPs figure out which households are unconnected, using their connections to 130 regional and national ISPs as well as school districts across the country. 

It took EducationSuperHighway seven years to solve the K-12 classroom connectivity gap, and Marwell said he hoped this latest effort would also be addressed within seven years as well. 

EducationSuperHighway has gotten $16 million to continue its work thanks to donations from the Emerson Collective, Blue Meridian Partners, Ken Griffin, Citadel, and Citadel Securities, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Walton Family Foundation and Zoom Cares Fund.

"EducationSuperHighway has played a pivotal role in closing the digital divide, paving the way for broadband access in K-12 classrooms at an unprecedented scale," said Jim Shelton, Chief Investment and Impact Officer at Blue Meridian Partners. 

"Given the need for affordable home broadband, which has become even more apparent during the pandemic, EducationSuperHighway now has the opportunity to amplify its impact and close the affordability gap in America's most unconnected communities."

The Infrastructure Bill also has a $30 a month subsidy for broadband designed for qualified households, and Marwell said he believes that would provide millions of households with a strong connection.

With $30 per month, ISPs can make money and, in turn, will begin investing in marketing and sales engines designed to take advantage of the program, according to Marwell.  

"The pandemic has made it really clear that there are 80 million Americans without the internet, and we are all worse off when they're not connected. They're worse off because they can't send their kids to school. They can't work remotely, and they can't get job training. They cant access healthcare, and the list goes on and on," Marwell said.

"We're all worse off because those are the people that we need to be able to hire. Those are the kids that we need to be able to educate so that we have our workforce of tomorrow. The federal government is stepping up to do Its part, ISPs are stepping up to do their part. But we need a broad public-private partnership across the industry, across community-based organizations and across local governments to get this work done. If we don't solve this problem now, I don't know when we're ever going to solve it." 

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