As offices and schools went remote during the pandemic, the digital divide in the U.S. became even more obvious. In Salinas, California, two young girls sat on the curb outside a Taco Bell to access its wifi and attend class. In Taos, New Mexico, cars lined up outside a new coworking space to access its broadband. Communities across the country have similar stories.
“Many families found themselves in similar situations, scraping together everything they could,” said Morgan Ames, an adjunct professor in the School of Information at the University of California Berkeley and author of The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child.
Quickly, many governments and schools distributed laptops, hoping to solve the technology gap for their students without computers at home, pulling from federal COVID-19 relief funds. But the computer — and even a hotspot– is just the start.
Having learned from a previous generation of efforts, entrepreneurs are stepping up now with a new set of innovations, which include hardware, connectivity and education. One is EducationSuperHighway, backed by big names such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation.
The nonprofit was preparing to shut down just as the pandemic hit. Now, it’s launched a campaign to provide broadband service to the about 47 million Americans who do not have access. It’s starting in Oakland.
Some of its biggest successes have come from surprising methods. For instance, it published the prices that schools were paying for their Internet services and which providers they were buying from — the transparency drove prices down by 92% on average, said its founder, Evan Marwell, the founder of investment management firm Shaka Capital.
The Biggest Barrier To Access is Simple
Over the years, the nonprofit found that the largest barrier to getting internet access is affordability — the average cost for internet service was $47 to $69 per month last year, according to NerdWallet. The new program will provide free broadband wifi to apartment buildings located in some of “America’s most unconnected communities” through installing broadband Wifi networks in apartment buildings.
The plan is for these services to be paid for by local and state governments — pulling funding from the American Recovery Act and the Infrastructure Bill. Landlords will maintain the networks and pay the initial installation of the network, which Marwell says will work because landlords will want free internet to make their building more desirable to renters.
Increasing broadband won’t solve the digital divide alone, but it will impact individual families.
“It’s not necessarily a transformative change, but it is transformative in even letting people access the services that exist,” Ames said.
Experts say it’s going to take more than broadband services to solve the digital divide– it’s just the first step. People also need devices and the knowledge to use that device — to essentially make a computer worth more than the price to sell it. There’s also a cloud of skepticism around federal programs.
Big promises, like broadband for all or a laptop for every child, is glamorous — it’s a concrete goal that, with enough initial funding, is possible. But it’s also not transformational without the funding and plan to sustain the program for years.
“It is not sexy to raise money for maintenance and repair, even if it is crucial to having these projects make any difference whatsoever,” Ames said. Nonprofits must include this piece in their narratives, because without it, these short term projects will likely eventually run out of money — or, in the best case scenario, market forces kick in. But that’s not proven true in the past.
A Laptop’s Power, or Lack Of
The failed One Laptop Per Child, a nonprofit that aimed to transform society by distributing laptops to every child, revealed a very important lesson: handing children computers will not change the world, said Ames, who wrote about the topic extensively in her book.
The impact shifts slightly — though not much — when you increase access for adults, she said. Unlike children, adults often need the internet for tasks such as paying bills, accessing government services and applying for jobs, which does impact people.
Access to the internet and a device is one of the factors that Arkansas-based Heartland Forward notes as essential to spurring entrepreneurship. If just this one factor improves, it can improve its ecosystems by multiple rankings, said Jonas Crew, who led the October report. But, it’s going to take more than just internet access, he warns. “You can’t just give someone broadband and you can’t just give someone a computer. They have to know how to use them together,” he said.
The pandemic will likely only make the internet more important going forward, Crews said. “I’ll be interested to see over time, just how important having access to a computer and computer literacy and broadband access in the home is for starting a business.”
While Marwell agrees these other parts are important, EducationSuperHighway plans to only focus on internet access. “Our experience with schools was that other organizations and the market took care of those issues and it was best for us to stay focused on Internet access,” he said.
Marwell started EducationSuperHighway in 2012 after he learned his daughter’s school had slow wifi. His family lived in an affluent area — in fact, they lived in Silicon Valley, the center of tech development — and his daughter went to a private school. Later, he said one student described the wifi connection there as “sucking peanut butter through a straw.” This completely shocked him.
“Everybody was talking about how technology is going to transform teaching and learning,” he said. “And I was like, well, it’s not going to transform teaching and learning if they have lousy internet.”
As this was bouncing around his head, he was getting ready to fly across the country to go to the White House as part of a group of representatives from Silicon Valley. When he was there, he asked the Chief Technology Officer at the time, Aneesh Chopra, for his thoughts. Chopra was surprised, too, pointing to a $4.2 billion program that provides broadband service to schools who need it.
Most of the people who are eligible for federal broadband programs, such as the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, aren’t using it. Many have never even heard of it or, if they have, they don’t trust it, Marwell said. “Folks are really worried that this is too good to be true,” he said. “That someone’s gonna give me a free broadband connection and it’s only gonna last for 12 months and then I’m going to have to pay for it. Or in some cases the information I have to supply is going to be used to deport me.”
Focus on One Part of the Problem
In some cases, it turns into a Catch 22 — you need the internet to learn and apply for these programs, but without these programs, it’s difficult to get access to the internet. So folks won’t be able to access the programs without help.
It illustrated an inherent pitfall of how the government works, Marwell said. “They can make policy, they can provide funding, they can set goals, but they don’t really have the execution capacity to go and actually implement solutions to problems,” Marwell said. “At any level, at the federal level, the state level, even the local level, for the most part.”
So, he decided to launch the nonprofit and began the work to connect American schools to the resources that were available. It has hundreds of federal, state and local partnerships and is funded by groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Emerson Collective and Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation.
A majority of the funds it raises goes toward salary and wages of its employees, a move Marwell said he made to attract the best talent to compete with the startups in the area. His top paid employees made around $200,000 each in 2019, according to its form 990, and more than $6 million of its $8 million of revenue it reported that year went to salary and wages, according to the form. Marwell himself doesn’t take a paycheck.
The Pandemic Pivot
EducationSuperHighway has had success providing broadband access to schools over the last decade. Currently, almost 99% of students have access to effective wifi at their school — a hefty difference from the 10% that did when the group started its work.
In fact, Marwell planned to close its doors last year. The work was done, and schools were plugged in. But when the pandemic hit and suddenly millions of students headed home for months, the federal and state partners that the nonprofit had worked with called him in a panic. No one knew how to get every student connected from their homes.
Before this, the digital divide was really seen as “unsolvable,” Marwell said. It took a dire situation to begin to have the information to solve it.
Over the last year and a half, the city of Oakland handed out more than 29,000 computers, 10,000 hotspots and filled 10,000 tech support requests to students, giving 98% of them tech to attend class — a large increase from the 25% that had access before in a $14 million program — $10 million of which was funded by former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey — called OaklandUndivided.
Data is one Part of the Answer
Oakland is the first city that will pilot EducationSuperHighway’s program, with the goal of getting its residents connected in five years. So far, eight buildings are testing out the wifi, and it’s been going well, Marwell said. The city hopes it will maintain their program, said David Silver, the director of education for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf.
But therein lies the greatest challenge: funding long term. Ames is concerned Oakland’s plan to sustain the program will fall flat. “They have a roadmap for what needs to be done to maintain this program — the teacher training, the maintenance, the repair, the outreach, but I am worried that they will not be able to fund that.”
Marwell is hopeful the Digital Equity Act, which is part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, will provide the advertising and marketing dollars necessary for the FCC and others to reach more people. In the meantime, EducationSuperHighway and others are picking up the slack.
As the group makes headway on its broadband program, they’re asking, “How do we identify which homes need to be upgraded?” and “What are the programs that we can do to make it easy for those households to actually get connected to the internet?”
ISPs are Sharing Data
For the first question, Internet service providers are key. The pandemic encouraged them to do more to address the disparities in access, Marwell said. Many waived late fees or gave free access during the first few months of the pandemic. But it also created an environment where ISPs agreed to share data. “It’s the first time they’ve ever shared that kind of information,” Marwell said. “It’s critical to solving the problem.”
States and localities can also make more direct plans when they know who’s affected. For instance, knowing there’s 300 schools in the state with poor internet is more actionable than knowing that there’s bad internet at a lot of schools.
Then, it’s a matter of directly connecting people to services that are helpful. That can either be through broadband adoption centers, which can help families sign up for both the federal subsidies and the low cost internet programs, or, through the free wifi program — the one being piloted in Oakland.
“We can’t solve this problem if we don’t know who isn’t connected, because there’s program after program after program where when all you can do is sort of general marketing campaigns, you just don’t get anywhere — you get, like 20% of the people,” Marwell said. “But when you can do direct outreach to people that are not connected, it’s a totally different story.”
Getting the Funding
So where does the long term funding to sustain these programs come from? It’s going to take public and private partnerships, experts say.
If Ames could snap her fingers, she’d make funders more invested in the long term maintenance of the projects — including taxpayers. “I’d love to make voters and taxpayers more amenable to maybe funding these projects through government support,” Ames said. “It’s not something that I feel it’s fair to always put on the lower income communities.”
In the meantime, nonprofits should work on making their goals and pitches to their funders realistic.
“If the story that you start out with is, we’re going to give devices out and there’s going to be massive transformation, it’s going to be very hard to then come back and say, well, actually, we need something more,” Ames said. “If we were able to say, hey, social change is really hard, we have a great way to do it, we are connected with the community, we are on the ground, we are very realistic about it. It’s going to take an ongoing commitment, I feel like that’s a great starting point for those ongoing conversations.”