A Playbook for Getting Millions of Unconnected Households Online

Lisa R. Parker

Schools are reopened, and students have resumed in-person learning. But some relics of the pandemic are still holding strong, including dependency on digital technology to aid learning. Many teachers, flush with devices and education software from the remote school days of yore, continue to assign homework that must be completed online, after hours.

Yet millions of students live in households without an internet connection.

Of the 28 million unconnected households in the U.S., about half include families with school-aged children, says Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway.

“We still have a huge digital divide, a huge homework gap,” Marwell says.

Marwell, who led the successful effort to get 99 percent of U.S. schools connected to high-speed broadband over the last decade, turned his attention to household connectivity during the pandemic.

The federal government has also gotten involved, putting up about $16 billion toward the cause of connecting those across the U.S. who remain offline. The majority of those funds are available through the Biden administration’s Affordable Connectivity Program, part of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides households up to $30 a month to cover high-speed internet services and a one-time $100 discount for devices.

That funding—and the ACP—is a big deal, Marwell says. The commitment from federal leaders represents a “real sea change.” But millions of people are simply not taking advantage of the available benefits: Only about a quarter of the 51 million eligible households have enrolled in ACP since it launched on Dec. 31, 2021, and of those who have, over 90 percent of them already had internet.

“It turns out, it’s a very different problem,” Marwell says of connecting households versus schools, noting that the business-to-business nature of working with school districts proved to be far more straightforward than the business-to-consumer approach needed to connect tens of millions of families.

But Marwell remains undaunted. In fact, he’s following a similar playbook for households as he did for schools: spending one year understanding the problem, two years scoping out solutions to the problem, and five years scaling those solutions. He’s currently rounding out that middle phase.

After those steps were completed for his work with schools, nearly every school in the country was online. Such a feat is not realistic for households, he admits. In five years, Marwell says, if his team has helped connect five million new households, representing 10 to 15 million people in the U.S., “that’d be a great accomplishment.”

To get there—and beyond—Marwell is pursuing a few key goals: spread awareness about the ACP, build trust in the program, and make enrollment a user-friendly process.

They plan to spread awareness primarily through states, where most of the infrastructure funding is flowing already. Early next year, EducationSuperHighway will work with states to launch ACP awareness campaigns, Marwell says, tapping into social media and credible institutions like schools and libraries. Already, 27 governors have committed to making ACP adoption a priority.

Schools play an integral role too, Marwell notes.

“Schools are one of the most trusted institutions out there,” he says, making them an essential piece in helping get the word out. But they also play a more practical part. Schools can verify ACP eligibility for families. Any family with a child receiving free or reduced-price lunch can ask the school to write a letter confirming as much, proving that they qualify for the ACP discounts.

EducationSuperHighway tested this strategy in two towns in Massachusetts, Worcester and Springfield. Using data from the school district and internet service providers (ISPs), the team was able to figure out which students were living in unconnected homes. Then they began outreach, using texts, emails, robocalls, fliers, and in-school events. In those two towns, ACP adoption rates are now double the state average, Marwell says.

To make the actual enrollment experience easier, Marwell and his colleagues have built GetACP.org, a “natural landing space” for folks who think they may be eligible for the ACP discounts, packaged in a simpler, sleeker way than the government alternative.

Marwell’s ambitions are perhaps more restrained than during his first go-round tackling the digital divide. But he is largely hopeful that something “pretty amazing” can happen in just a few years.

“We have this opportunity, just like we did with schools,” he says. “It’s gonna take a village. We need ISPs to step up, and the ISPs are stepping up. We need state and local governments to step up, and state and local governments are stepping up. We need nonprofits to step up, and nonprofits are stepping up.”

Marwell adds: “Congress has set us up for success. Now it’s making sure we don’t waste it.”

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