Two years ago, EducationSuperHighway was going to hang up its well-known hat. The non-profit organization stated that it has achieved its goal of ensuring that 99% of American schools are connected to the high-speed Internet, which is the gospel of digital learning. Founder and CEO Evan Marwell is even looking forward to taking a leave of absence after leading the organization for eight years.
But then-as we all know-the pandemic hit.
“My phone started to ring, people in Washington were calling, the governor’s office was calling. They said the same thing,” Marwell recalled. “We don’t know how many [our students] There is internet or how to connect them. “
EducationSuperHighway created a tool to help schools identify students who cannot access the Internet at home, and learned more about the digital divide in the process. The organization did not close its doors, but launched a new campaign. The focus of the campaign is not schools, but 18.1 million American families, where cost is the main obstacle to connectivity. It outlines plans to achieve this goal in a new report “Homelessness: Bridging the broadband affordability gap.”
“Despite historical talk about building infrastructure in rural America, two-thirds of the digital divide is that people cannot afford the broadband connection provided at home,” Marwell said. “We see that this is a problem that can actually be solved, but it needs to work as hard as connecting all schools.”
Who is affected?
Marwell said that solving the broadband affordability problem will require everyone, from Capitol Hill lawmakers who control federal wallets to school districts best suited to identify students who need Internet access. But he believes that now is the time to take action, when the pandemic reveals how much the digital divide affects those who are not connected at home.
“Our country realizes that when 80 million Americans cannot access the Internet, the situation for all of us gets worse,” Marwell said. “We will never have more political will or energy to solve this problem. If we don’t solve it now, we don’t know when it will be solved.”
In its report, EducationSuperHighway defines an unconnected community as at least a quarter of households without home broadband.
Black and Latino communities are disproportionately affected. African Americans make up 13.4% of the nation’s population, but 21.1% of households in unconnected communities. The gap is even greater among Latin Americans, who make up 18.5% of the country’s population but 27.6% of unconnected communities.
The same is true for educational factors. According to the report, families with a high school degree or below accounted for 27.4% of non-connected families, while families with a high school diploma and families with a bachelor’s degree or higher accounted for only 13.3%.
The report states: “Families in the least connected communities in the United States and families with a high school degree or less are precisely the families that need broadband connectivity to find better jobs, educate children, access to affordable health care, and access to social safety nets.”.
EducationSuperHighway officials said in the report that raising awareness of low-cost and free broadband plans is part of the solution. More than 6 million people have used the emergency broadband benefit, which provides any Internet service provider with a $50 monthly discount. Marwell said it sounds like a lot of participants, until you compare it to 37 million eligible people.
But it takes more than consciousness to get people involved. They must believe that these programs will help them, and they need guidance on how to register.
“One thing we really learned is that trust is a big issue,” Marwell said. “People think,’This is too good to be true. Are you going to give me free internet access? There must be a problem.'”
Families also need help navigating the registration process that can be confusing or overwhelming. The EducationSuperHighway report highlights the success of the Clark County School District serving the Las Vegas area. The school district identified students who did not have access to the Internet, contacted these families directly, and set up a concierge center to help people sign contracts with local Internet service providers. Marwell said the strategy allows more than 80% of students to connect to the Internet at home.
“The other day I heard that there are 3,000 codes in one area that can provide Internet services for free, and 76 families use them,” Marwell said. “You can’t just do general marketing.”
Have you noticed that you don’t have to convince people to use Wi-Fi in coffee shops or hotels?
EducationSuperHighway also noted that part of its strategy to close the affordability gap is to provide free Wi-Fi in multi-family homes. According to its report, it estimates that as much as 25% of the digital divide can be bridged by simply providing free Wi-Fi in low-income apartment buildings. The $42.5 billion broadband infrastructure will fund these types of projects as part of the federal infrastructure bill that has not yet been passed.
Marwell said the non-profit organization has piloted an 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 launching pilot programs in three school districts, preparing for broadband adoption activities with several cities and housing authorities.
“We are using these pilots to refine the plan [and] Know what the correct steps are. “Marvel said. “This is the work for the next 18 months to lay the foundation for connecting people on a large scale. “
Marwell said that in many ways, the non-profit organization is solving a bigger problem than it intended to solve when it was founded. Its original goal was to provide high-speed Internet access in approximately 100,000 schools. Now, its goal is more than 18 million households—nearly 47 million people.
This also makes Marwell’s vacation plans at a loss. Maybe another eight years.