This nonprofit organization was ready for sunset. Now it’s back, with a new mission for student internet access.

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Two years ago, EducationSuperHighway was getting ready to hang up its proverbial hat. The nonprofit said it did achieved its goal to ensure 99% of US schools were connected to high-speed internet, a boon to digital learning. Founder and CEO Evan Marwell was looking forward to taking a gap year after eight years at the helm of the organization.

But then, as we all know, the pandemic arrived.

“My phone started ringing and people in Washington were calling, governors’ offices were calling. They were saying the same thing, “recalls Marwell.” We don’t know how many of [our students] have internet or how to connect them. “

EducationSuperHighway has created a tool for help schools identify students without internet access at home and, in the process, I learned a lot more about the digital divide. Instead of shutting down, the organization is launching a new campaign that focuses not on schools but on the 18.1 million US households where cost is the main barrier to connection. His plan to achieve this is outlined in a new report “No Home Left Offline: Bridging the Broadband Accessibility Gap”.

“Despite the historical narrative of building infrastructure in rural America, two-thirds of the digital divide was due to people not being able to afford the broadband connections offered in their homes,” says Marwell. “We saw that this was a problem that can actually be solved, but it will take an effort just like the effort to connect all the schools.”

The broadband accessibility gap is the largest part of the digital divide in 43 states, according to a report by Education SuperHighway.
Source: EducationSuperHighway

Who is affected?

Solving the problem of broadband accessibility will lead everyone, says Marwell, from Capitol Hill lawmakers who control federal purse strings to school districts who are best placed to identify students who need Internet access. But the time for action is now, when the pandemic has revealed how profoundly the digital divide impacts those not connected at home, he argues.

“Our country has realized that we are all worse off when 80 million Americans don’t have access to the Internet,” says Marwell. “We will never again have political will or all-out energy to solve this problem. If we don’t fix it now, I don’t know when we will. “

In its report, EducationSuperHighway identified unconnected communities as those in which at least one in four households do not have home broadband.

Black and Latino communities are disproportionately affected. African Americans make up 13.4 percent of the national population, but 21.1 percent of families in unconnected communities. The gap is even wider for Latinos, who make up 18.5% of the national population but 27.6% of unrelated communities.

Educational factors too. Those with less than a high school diploma account for 27.4 percent of non-connected families, according to the report, compared to just 13.3 percent for those with a high school diploma and 4.5 percent of families. with a degree or above.

“Families in America’s most disjointed communities and those with lower than high education are precisely the families who most need a broadband connection to find a better job, educate their children, connect to health services. affordable prices and access to the social safety net, “says the report. .

Bar charts showing the percentages of people making up the digital divide.
Source: EducationSuperHighway

Go beyond awareness

Building awareness of low-cost, no-cost broadband programs is part of the solution, EducationSuperHighway officials say in the report. More than 6 million people have used the Emergency Broadband Benefit, which provides a $ 50 monthly discount for any Internet Service Provider. There seem to be a lot of participants, says Marwell, until you compare that with the 37 million eligible people.

But it will take more than awareness to engage people. They have to believe that the programs will help them and they need guidance on how to sign up.

“One of the things we’ve really learned: trust is a big deal,” says Marwell. “People think, ‘This is too good to be true. Will you give me internet for free? There must be a problem. ‘”

Families also need help navigating enrollment processes which can be confusing or overwhelming. The Education SuperHighway report highlights the success of the Clark County School District, which serves the Las Vegas area. The district identified students with no internet access, contacted those homes directly, and set up a welcome center to help people register with the local internet service provider. Marwell says the strategy enabled more than 80 percent of students to connect to the internet from home.

“I heard about a district the other day that had 3,000 codes to distribute for the free internet service and 76 families got them,” says Marwell. “You can’t just do general marketing.”

Magnification

Have you ever noticed how you don’t have to convince people to use Wi-Fi in bars or hotels?

EducationSuperHighway has also noticed this and part of its strategy to bridge the accessibility gap is to get free Wi-Fi in multi-family housing. According to the report, it is estimated that up to 25% of the digital divide could be closed simply by offering free Wi-Fi in low-income condominiums. Funding for these types of programs alone would be covered by the $ 42.5 billion in broadband infrastructure that is part of the yet-to-pass federal infrastructure bill.

Marwell says the nonprofit is already testing the apartment Wi-Fi program in Oakland, California, where EducationSuperHighway has set a goal to connect 5,400 households in 127 condominiums 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 are using those pilots to perfect the program [and] understand what the right steps are. “Marwell says.” This is the job of the next 18 months, setting the stage for connecting people on a large scale. “

In many ways, the nonprofit is facing an even bigger problem than it set out to solve when it was founded, says Marwell. Its original goal was to access high-speed Internet in approximately 100,000 schools. Now the eyes are on over 18 million families, nearly 47 million people.

This also definitely puts kibosh on all the plans Marwell had for a gap year. Maybe in another eight years.

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