A New Mission for EducationSuperHighway

The nonprofit that helped close the school digital gap is now back, with a new goal: Making sure families who need home access to affordable broadband can get it.

EducationSuperHighway announced its "sunsetting" in August 2020. After all, accelerated by the pandemic, the nonprofit had achieved its sole mission: improving broadband connectivity for 99% of U.S. classrooms. Then a new challenge was presented, one that Founder and CEO Evan Marwell realized his organization could probably now solve as well: getting high-speed broadband to homes that didn't have it — not because it wasn't available, but because they couldn't afford it. (See today's news, "Nonprofit EducationSuperHighway Aims for Helping Fill Household Broadband Gap.")

In this interview, Marwell explains why he believes the new objective is suddenly solvable, lays out his team's plan of action and shares why he's hopeful for success and how education can help.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

THE Journal: Your team has identified these 18 million households out there that have access to internet bandwidth, but they're not taking advantage. Why is that?

Evan Marwell: It all comes down to, they can't afford it. As we say, in the report, there are about 28 million households, representing close to 80 million people, that don't have internet. About 7 million or so don't have it because there's no infrastructure available; they couldn't get it if they wanted it. About 3 million have decided for whatever reason, they don't need the internet, and that's largely elderly households.

And then there's two-thirds of the households — 18 million — who want internet. They can't get it because they can't afford it. For a long time, the narrative has been that the digital divide is all about, oh, we need to build more infrastructure, especially in rural America. And while we still need to do that, after a couple decades of doing that, now the No. 1 barrier to getting people online is making the internet affordable to them.

What that really means is we've got to find ways to make it free for them. ISPs have had low-cost internet plans for coming up on a decade now. And these folks can't even afford that. And so it's really incumbent upon us to find ways to make the Internet free for them so that they're on a level playing field when it comes to economic security and opportunity.

What is it your organization hopes to do that all those telecom companies and the FCC have not been able to accomplish?

It's almost like the last mile of internet adoption. Companies have built the networks. The FCC, previously with the Lifeline program and more recently with the Emergency Broadband Benefit, has provided subsidies for folks.

But there are three barriers that really prevent them from getting online. The first is awareness. There was a recent survey done that suggests that less than 25% of people even know about the Emergency Broadband Benefit. The second issue is trust. Folks think that this is too good to be true: I can get free internet access? There's got to be a catch, right? I'm going to get stuck with a bill at some point. Or, I'm worried that the information I have to provide to the government to get these things is going to get used for some other purpose, like deporting me if I'm not a citizen. And then the third issue is getting through the signup process. The crazy thing is, for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, the Lifeline program, and pretty much all the internet service provider low-cost programs, the way you have to sign up is on the internet. And these people don't have internet.

We're going to tackle those awareness issues, those trust issues, those enrollment issues. And we're going to do it in two ways. The first way is that we're going to put free broadband networks in places where a lot of these folks live.

We estimate that about 20% to 25% of those 18 million households live in low-income apartment buildings. We know is there's no adoption problem when you go to an airport. There's no adoption problem when you go to a coffee shop or a library or community center. And that's because everyone who's got a device of any kind, whether it's a phone, a tablet, a laptop, a Chromebook, they know, look for the free internet, hit yes on the splash screen and you're online.

We realized, well, what if we bring that same idea to where these folks who are not connected live? We've started deploying free internet networks, free Wi-Fi networks in apartment buildings. And it's turning out to be a great solution for that 20% to 25% of the households.

The other thing we're doing, though, is building off of best practices that occurred during the pandemic, particularly with school districts that were trying to get their students connected, about how to get free internet to those families that don't have it but need it now to go to school. There were some great examples.

The one we think was really terrific was what they did at Clark County, Nevada — the Las Vegas School District where they essentially set up a concierge center. They set up what we now call a broadband adoption center. And they figured out who didn't have internet, they called them, they texted them, they knocked on their doors, until they got somebody to speak to. And then they sat there with them either over the phone or in person and signed them up for the free internet programs. That's a model that we're replicating now.

And we've got pilots launching with a number of school districts, with the city of Oakland in their most unconnected communities, and also with some housing authorities.

You mentioned the city of Oakland project. How did you pick Oakland, and what is it you're hoping to accomplish there?

Oakland has got about 37,000 households that don't have internet access. It's very typical of the problem across America. Oakland has also been a leader in trying to figure out ways to do that. They launched something called #OaklandUndivided, which they use to as a public-private partnership to connect a lot of their school families during the pandemic so that they could get educated. They use CARES Act dollars to deploy a free Wi-Fi network in their most disadvantaged community.

Mayor [Libby] Shaaf and the city have been leaders on the digital divide. When we were looking for a city to pilot our full suite of programs, Oakland jumped out at us as a city that would be a great partner. We're working with them on extending that free Wi-Fi network into apartment buildings. We're going to be setting up a broadband adoption center with them and doing a whole bunch of other stuff to figure out who in Oakland isn't connected and get them online.

How are you going to make sure people take advantage of your adoption centers?

We've got a partnership with over 130 ISPs, including all the big ones, to identify who is and isn't connected. Using that data, we'll be able to do targeted outreach to folks as opposed to general awareness campaigns.

The reality is, those programs can only get you so far. And at some point, we have to know that Dian, [for example], doesn't have internet, and I have to get a hold of Dian and figure out why she doesn't have it and help her get signed up for it. And that's really the key difference in what we're doing.

It was the same thing we did with schools. We had the data on who was and wasn't connected, and we were able to focus efforts on those places.

It took you about seven years to get schools connected. But you finally made it — 99-plus percent. How long do you think this is going to take?

It's a good question. I see a tremendous number of parallels in the work. Last time around, we spent the first year figuring out what the problem was and what the barriers were. Then we spent about two years getting the policy, the data and piloting the programs that we could use to upgrade schools. That's what we're doing right now. I'd say we're six months into that work. Once the money was there and we had the programs figured out, it took us about five years to take it to scale.

Seven years seems like a good number once again. The other thing that's kind of funny is, those 18 million households represent about 47 million people. Well, there were 47 million students we upgraded in America. This is harder, but it's the same level of objective.

I have to ask, in 2020 you announced that EducationSuperHighway was getting out of the business of connectivity and handing off the work to other organizations. What happened to bring you back?

The pandemic happened. Schools sent all the kids home. And my phone started ringing. I was getting calls from [Washington,] D.C., from governors' offices, from superintendents, saying, 'We just send all these kids home and we just figured out that a lot of them don't have internet. What do we do? Can you help us?"

One of my board members called me up and I said, "We're getting all these calls, but we're supposed to go out of business in six months." He said, "The only thing that's going to matter at the end of the pandemic is, what did you do to make a difference during the pandemic?" And I said, "You're right."

He said, "We can go get some money to keep your people around for the next six months. So why don't we do that, and you can work on the problem."

So, on March 17 when all the kids went home, we pivoted the organization. We said we're going to focus on getting kids connected at home — which, by the way, this whole "digital divided home," I never thought was a solvable problem. And I didn't think it was solvable because we didn't have data about who was and wasn't connected. So the best we could do were these general marketing campaigns, which I knew didn't work. The data showed it didn't work. And there was no political will to pay for it. Schools would talk about, "Oh, we have 30% of our kids who don't have internet," but it was also like, "Yeah, and we don't have money to do anything about it."

The pandemic changed both of those things. The ISPs stepped up and said, "OK, we'll help figure out who does and doesn't have internet." And the federal government stepped up and said, "OK, we'll pay for it."

We now have $20 billion that's already been allocated for programs to address people who can't afford internet. And there's another $20 billion coming, assuming that the bipartisan infrastructure bill passes. I realized we needed a catalytic organization like EducationSuperHighway to close the classroom digital divide, and we couldn't go out of business.

This was a problem that people had talked to me about for five years, asking me to work on it — specifically, the homework gap portion. And I was like, "I gotta stay focused on schools. And, besides, it's not a solvable problem." I'm not going to take on a problem I don't believe can be solved. But now I believe it can be solved.

What happens if the infrastructure bill doesn't pass?

There's already $20 billion of dedicated affordability and broadband infrastructure funding that I believe we can use to make the case for a dedicated broadband program in the future.

There's enough money there that we can prove the program, show how this is all going to work, show Congress that this is a solvable problem. And we'll get another bite at the apple. What we know is, there's huge bipartisan support for closing the digital divide. And if the infrastructure bill ends up not being the vehicle for getting it done, there will come another vehicle, because broadband is one of those things that everybody agrees on, even more so today.

What really has changed is not only does everyone agree that broadband is critical, but now everyone agrees that we've got to pay for the infrastructure for people who don't have it and we've got to pay for people who can't afford it. We've got plenty of money to start doing the work and make the case and figure out the solutions. But I'm also reasonably confident the infrastructure bill is going to pass.

Do you think these programs will be sustainable?

Yeah, I do. I think that the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which is going to become the Affordable Connectivity Program, will be sustainable. The federal government's going to need to continue to be a payer, but everybody's going to be supporting it. The ISPs are going to be supporting it. The advocacy groups that work with these communities are going to be supporting it. It's going to make a lot of people look good as we close the digital divide. I think that it'll be sustainable.

And the other thing is these, this idea of putting broadband networks, free Wi-Fi networks in apartment buildings, landlords realize that that improves the value of their buildings and the attractiveness of their buildings to tenants. Landlords will maintain those going forward. So, yeah, I understand you can't do solutions that aren't sustainable, or you'll be back in the place you were. We're all about sustainability.

Our readership is education technology for the most part. What role can they play in this endeavor?

We talked before a little bit about the challenges of building awareness of these programs, building trust and helping people sign up. And I think organizations that are involved in education have perhaps the most compelling reason: Your kids can't learn today if you don't have internet access at home.

Your readers can help get the word out. They have links to their communities to get the word out that it's important to have internet access at home and that these programs are available. Also, they can support advocacy efforts around making sure that Congress and then state and local government stay focused on doing this work. We all have a voice here, and we need the education industry to use theirs in support of this.