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.
- By Dian Schaffhauser
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
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.
interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
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?
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.
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
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
is it your organization hopes to do that all those telecom companies
and the FCC have not been able to accomplish?
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
has provided subsidies for folks.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
mentioned the city of Oakland project. How did you pick Oakland, and
what is it you're hoping to accomplish there?
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.
[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.
are you going to make sure people take advantage of your adoption
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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?
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?"
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."
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
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."
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
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.
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.
happens if the infrastructure bill doesn't pass?
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.
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.
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.
you think these programs will be sustainable?
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
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
readership is education technology for the most part. What role can
they play in this endeavor?
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.
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.