Who’s Backing a Campaign to Bring the Internet to Millions of U.S. Households That Lack Access — Inside Philanthropy

EducationSuperHighway has always set its sights high. Founder and CEO Evan Marwell started the organization almost a decade ago with the express goal of closing the connectivity gap in K-12 schools by 2020. In 2013, just 10% of students had access to digital learning in their classrooms. Today, 99.3% of U.S. schools have a high-speed broadband connection. 

The small, San Francisco-based nonprofit didn’t bring about that transformation on its own, of course. It took the combined efforts of government officials at every level, as well as school district leaders, corporate supporters and other K-12 advocacy groups. Still, EducationSuperHighway deserves a lot of credit. It was a consistent facilitator, catalyst, champion and nudge. The organization built partnerships with internet service providers, conducted and amplified research, enlisted allies in the government, education and corporate worlds, supported broadband legislation, and talked to anyone and everyone about the importance of closing the digital divide in education. 

Now, the group has announced an equally ambitious goal. Its new campaign, “No Home Left Offline,” seeks to connect American households that still lack access to the internet. In unveiling this new mission, the organization rolled out a new moniker as well: EducationSuperHighway 2.0. “We must seize this moment to accelerate progress in closing the digital divide,” Marwell said when the initiative was announced.

A number of philanthropies support EducationSuperHighway’s work, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation (here’s a list of all its funders). The new No Home Left Offline initiative has also brought in funding from some heavy-hitters. Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, Blue Meridian Partners, Ken Griffin, Citadel and Citadel Securities, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Walton Family Foundation and the Zoom Cares Fund made a combined $16 million multi-year investment in the new program.

“In only seven years, EducationSuperHighway executed on their mission to connect every classroom to high-speed internet,” Powell Jobs said in a press release announcing the new initiative. “We know Evan and his team will bring the same creativity and ingenuity to deploying broadband into homes across the country, bridging the digital divide and increasing access to opportunity for all families.”

Affordability gap

A report just released by EducationSuperHighway makes the case for its new campaign. No Home Left Offline reveals that 28.2 million of 122.8 million U.S. households do not have high-speed broadband. The report also found that a full 18 million of those households lack connectivity because they can’t afford the cost. 

“The historical narrative has been that the digital divide is the result of not having infrastructure available,” Marwell said. “But the reality is that today—after two decades of investment by the government and internet service providers—the biggest cause of the digital divide is not a lack of infrastructure—it’s people who have an internet connection available to them at their door but can’t afford it.”

Low-income Black and brown households are more likely to lack broadband access, and the report concludes that this “affordability gap” is not just a feature of small towns or lower-income urban areas—it’s “present in every state and impacts virtually every community in America—urban, suburban, and small-town.”

President Joe Biden has argued that “[Broadband] isn’t a luxury; it’s now a necessity, like water and electricity.” He made this argument as he pushed for his infrastructure plan, which includes $65 billion to improve and expand broadband infrastructure in the U.S. The bill contains support for the nation’s largest-ever broadband affordability and adoption programs. As the EducationSuperHighway report points out, “Starting with the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 and continuing with the American Rescue Plan Act and the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Congress is poised to provide over $85 billion in new funding for broadband infrastructure, affordability, and adoption programs.”

EducationSuperHighway released the report just after the Biden administration’s plan was passed. The timing is not a coincidence: The organization backed the infrastructure plan and the report provides a detailed roadmap of how it believes the plan should be implemented. 

Marwell sees this new federal spending as a historic opportunity, but also as a daunting challenge. Implementation will be overseen by state governments, and the risk is that the money won’t be used wisely or targeted to where it is needed most. 

Marwell believes government, corporate and nonprofit leaders need to cooperate to make the plan work. As the new report notes, “We need the bold leadership of a public-private partnership to remove the barriers that keep low-income families on the wrong side of the digital divide.” Marwell describes some of the work that needs to be done to get more people online: Unconnected households must be identified, those households need to be contacted with information and support to facilitate access, and low-income apartment buildings need access to free Wi-Fi. This last measure alone would close 20 to 25% of the digital divide, according to the report.

Philanthropy can play an essential role by supporting national and community-based organizations doing education and outreach to increase access. “Where philanthropy comes in is really in making resources available to the nonprofit sector to be able to do this work,” Marwell said. 

Boosting bandwidth

For Marwell, closing the digital divide means opening doors for those currently shut out of the economy—and from society as a whole. “If the pandemic has shown us one thing, it’s that if you are not online, your kids can’t go to school, you can’t work remotely, you can’t get job training to get a better job, you can’t access telehealth, you can’t access the social safety net, you can’t access economic opportunity,” he said. “It not only isolates you, it puts you at an enormous economic disadvantage.”

It was the pandemic that opened billionaire Ken Griffin’s eyes to the gaping digital divide in U.S. schools. Griffin, founder and CEO of the Citadel hedge fund, is from Chicago. When all the schools there closed as lockdowns went into effect, it quickly became clear that many students—as many as one out of every two in some neighborhoods—didn’t have access to the internet at home. Griffin joined a public-private partnership effort to provide high-speed internet to 100,000 Chicago students, as IP reported. 

Now, Griffin is supporting EducationSuperHighway. “He was so taken by the impact in Chicago that he and his foundation went looking for opportunities to continue that work,” Marwell said. “It was because of the pandemic that he became interested in our work, and we’re very happy that he’s become a supporter.” 

Marwell is excited about the Biden plan and the prospect of getting many more American households connected—so excited that he’s put off a long-scheduled sabbatical to help make it happen. “I don’t know if we’ll ever have another opportunity like this,” he said. “But shame on us if we don’t take action now, and really make progress against the digital divide in America. Now is the time.”

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