Affordability—not lack of high-speed broadband infrastructure in the community—is the biggest reason millions of students are still without home internet access, even as the federal government has poured billions of dollars into closing the digital divide.
In fact, almost two-thirds of offline households have access to home broadband connections in their areas, but can’t cover the cost, according to “No Home Left Offline,” a report released Thursday by EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that champions greater broadband access in schools and homes.
“The broadband affordability gap is present in every state and has become one of the primary inhibitors of access to economic security and opportunity,” wrote Evan Marwell, the founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, in a letter that accompanied the report. “It is a reality centered in our nation’s poorest communities and disproportionately impacts people of color.”
EducationSuperHighway has been part of one of the biggest digital education success stories of the past decade. The nonprofit launched in 2012, and by 2019, the number of students with strong broadband in their classrooms had catapulted from just 4 million to 45 million.
The effort was such a triumph that, in 2019, Marwell declared “Mission Accomplished” and announced plans to sunset the organization the following year.
But 2020, of course, brought a worldwide pandemic and unprecedented use of remote and hybrid learning and the technology available in students’ homes. Home internet connectivity for students went from an important service to have to something that could make-or-break their academic success.
So, now, instead of closing its doors, EducationSuperHighway is moving on to its second act: EducationSuperHighway 2.0. The organization’s mission will be “to close the digital divide for the 18 million households that have access to the internet but can’t afford to connect,” Marwell wrote in his letter.
One item on the to-do list: Helping low-income families take advantage of federal broadband affordability programs already at their disposal. As few as 17 percent of people eligible for those programs have enrolled, the report says.
That’s partly due to lack of awareness. Only 25 percent of lower-income people had even heard of a new federal emergency broadband benefit created in response to the pandemic, according to a national survey cited in the report.
Many offline families are also worried about sharing personal information through the sign-up process, or aren’t convinced that the program will actually cover their internet costs.
And signing up for the program can be daunting, particularly when it comes to producing documents to verify income. The nonprofit is planning to work with school districts to find families with school-age children who are unconnected, and help them enroll in programs that cover home internet access costs.
Marwell and his team also plan to build public-private partnerships, better identify unconnected households, help states make the most of new federal resources for broadband, and come up with guidance for states, cities, and school districts that want to ramp up connectivity in their communities, Marwell wrote.
“Internet access is no longer a luxury,” Marwell wrote. “It’s a necessity in the daily lives of every American.”