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January 5, 2021

2021 Broadband Access – Closing the Homework Gap

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband Bunch

Craig Corbin:

Long before the global pandemic of 2020 shined a white, hot spotlight on the need for access to digital learning by students nationwide, an organization based in the Bay Area of San Francisco has been hard at work making high-speed broadband a reality in schools across the country. EducationSuperHighway was founded in 2012 with the mission of upgrading internet access in every public-school classroom in America, funded by national philanthropic organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg initiative, and the Salesforce Foundation. EducationSuperHighway has also had support from America’s leading CEOs and governors of all 50 States.

Craig Corbin:

Due to the efforts of EducationSuperHighway, more than 99% of America’s schools now have high-speed broadband connections capable of providing enough bandwidth to enable their students and teachers to use technology in the classroom. Having completed its mission, the project was slated to sunset in the fall of 2020. Instead, the pandemic revealed another related challenge – that of America’s homework gap where upwards of 10 million students don’t have broadband access at home. So the EducationSuperHighway team embarked on a new initiative, K-12 Bridge to Broadband, to help connect students to broadband for remote learning. Our guest today is the Founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, Evan Marwell. After a quarter-century spent as a serial entrepreneur in the telecom, software, and hedge fund industries, Evan decided that the second act of his career would be about giving back.

Craig Corbin:

Evan has been honored with a World-Changing Ideas Award, named as one of the Top 30 Technologists, Transformers & Trailblazers, and received the 2015 Visionary of the Year honor by the San Francisco Chronicle.  Evan, welcome to The Broadband Bunch.

Craig Corbin:

Take us back if you will to the formative years of Education SuperHighway.

Broadband Access Levels Education Playing Field

Evan Marwell:

Back in 2012, we decided that it was time to make a difference in the world. We stumbled upon this problem, which was that across the education spectrum, people were starting to turn to technology as a way of improving education and more importantly, leveling the playing field for students across America. But there was one fundamental problem – all of the best-laid plans of these folks relied on having great internet access in every public-school classroom so that teachers and students could use technology for teaching and learning.

Internet Access in 99.7% of Classrooms

Evan Marwell:

The reality was that back in 2012, less than 10% of the classrooms in America actually had enough broadband coming to the classroom that technology was even an option. Of the 47 million students in America’s K-12 public schools, only 4 million of them actually had the opportunity to start using technology. We focused on that problem. We said, “This is a problem we can solve, and we’re going to go out and do it.” We spent the last eight years working in partnership with advocacy organizations, with governors from all 50 states, with school district leaders and with service providers to solve that problem.

Evan Marwell:

I’m pleased to say that at the start of the 2020 school year, 99.7% of those 47 million students now have great internet access in their classroom. They’ve got WiFi in every classroom, and the only problem is that very few of them are actually at school.

Education SuperHighway’s Broadband Mission

Craig Corbin:

What a daunting task it was then, but with its success at closing the Classroom Connectivity Gap, the plan was to sunset the organization this past fall.  Now you’ve pivoted the organization to an even more important part of that equation, to help connect students to broadband for remote learning.

Evan Marwell:

In March, when the pandemic hit and we sent essentially all of America’s students home, to learn from home, what became very clear was that there was now a homework gap, which impacted probably about 30% of the students in America. Somewhere between 10 and 15 million students across the country couldn’t participate in remote learning because they didn’t have an internet access connection. What was termed the homework gap and had been historically left up to families to solve suddenly became the learning gap, because these students couldn’t go to school. They couldn’t go in the spring, and huge numbers of them still couldn’t go to school in the fall because they didn’t have an internet access connection.

Evan Marwell:

In March, my phone started ringing. I started getting calls from DC, from policymakers there saying, “What should we do to address this problem?” I started getting calls from Governor’s offices around the country, “What should we do to address this problem?” I started getting calls from School Superintendents saying, “What should we do to address this problem?” While I had not been willing to point EducationSuperHighway’s resources at the homework gap while we were working on getting the schools connected, I knew that we had to pivot, because what’s the point of having the schools connected if nobody’s there?

Evan Marwell:

We’ve got to make sure that all of these kids can learn from home and even once schools reopen, we’ve got to make sure that the homework gap impacts as few kids as possible, so that they’re not at a disadvantage now that we’re seeing more and more and more teachers make digital learning a part of the assignments that they’re handing out to students.

Craig Corbin:

Would you agree that, regardless of what transpires with the pandemic, that digital learning will continue to be a part of that educational process going forward?

Broadband Access for Digital Learning

Evan Marwell:

Yes, there’s really no question about that. As we’ve been talking to state and district leaders across the country, we’re hearing the same message over and over again, which is we’re not going back. We’ve realized that digital learning – while it’s had its certain bumps in the road as we’ve tried to implement it across the entire country in an incredibly short period of time – teachers, students, administrators, state leaders, they’re all seeing that this can be an incredibly valuable piece of how we educate students. If we had maybe a third of our school districts across the country that were one-to-one, i.e., every student had a device that they could take home with them before the pandemic, we’re probably north of 70% now.

Evan Marwell:

I see us heading in a rapid pace to 100%. Having a device is great, but they realize we’ve got to make sure that everybody’s got the internet access connection they can use going forward at their homes, so they can continue to take advantage of the benefits that people are seeing.

Craig Corbin:

Given that daunting challenge, how did you and your team begin the process of figuring out your game plan to use EducationSuperHighway resources to help connect students at home with broadband?

Evan Marwell:

When we got these calls in March, I pulled my leadership team together and I said, “Okay, what are we going to do about this?” We realized that the first thing we needed to do was create playbooks for both school districts and states to do a couple of things. Number one, they needed to figure out which of their students were and weren’t connected [to the internet]. It seems crazy, but the fact is that school districts really don’t know which of their students have internet access at home, and so that’s where the starting point was. Ironically, that was also the starting point for our work connecting schools.

Evan Marwell:

When we started back in 2012, we went to state leaders and we went to the Federal Communications Commission, (which was funding almost 70% of the broadband costs in America’s public schools), we said, “Well, do you guys know who does and doesn’t have good connectivity?” The answer was no, and what we realized was that by getting that data, we suddenly had the ability to put together a thoughtful plan that people could get behind because they could see, “Oh, these are the schools that need to be upgraded. It’s no longer this amorphous problem and because it’s this finite group of schools, I can imagine that we can get this work done.” The same is true with connecting kids at home.

Broadband Connectivity for K-12 Kids

Evan Marwell:

If we don’t know which of the 47 million kids don’t have internet access, it’s really hard to get them connected. That was the first playbook. The second playbook was that once you know who they are, how do you actually procure internet access for them? As I said earlier, historically internet access at home was the responsibility of the families.  Due to the pandemic, states and school districts realized that they couldn’t allow this to just be the responsibility of families anymore, because the same families that couldn’t afford internet access before were still in the same position, if not even worse with their kids trying to learn from home.

Evan Marwell:

We had to help school districts think about how do to procure internet access in bulk, what kinds of internet access should be procured, what are the processes that you have to go through, just to connect kids at home. Then the third playbook was about devices. It was interesting. Our school districts across America had purchased literally tens of millions of devices over the previous three to five years, but most of those devices were sitting on laptop carts to be used at school only.

Broadband Device Lending Program

Evan Marwell:

The idea of sending devices home was a brand new one, and they needed a playbook for quickly setting up a device lending program. We basically set to work, trying to build playbooks for each of those three things and to help states understand how they could most effectively support their districts in getting all the kids connected and with a device. That was really the first probably four or five months of the work that we did on Digital Bridge K-12.

Craig Corbin:

Evan, you mentioned that first playbook, and that was determining who did or did not have connectivity. I would consider that perhaps to have been the biggest challenge.

Evan Marwell:

This was the biggest challenge, and what we saw happen in March and April when the pandemic hit was, we saw school districts suddenly saying, “Oh my gosh, we’ve got to figure this out.” What did they do? They sent out surveys and in many cases, they sent out surveys via email. If you don’t have internet access at home, it’s going to be pretty hard to respond to an email survey, but look, schools were desperate, right? They were just trying everything they could think of to learn the answer, and the reality is they would only get 30% to 40% response rates to those surveys. They made some progress, but not nearly enough. We said there’s got to be a better way.

Broadband Game-Changing Ideas

Evan Marwell:

We started working on a bunch of other approaches, phone banking, text banking, stuff that we were able to actually drive those response rates up to 80%, but it still wasn’t good enough. Then we saw something really innovative happening in two places in this country, in the State of North Dakota led by their Department of Education and in the City of Chicago.

Evan Marwell:

Two very diverse locations. We’re talking as urban as you get and as rural as you get. What they were doing that was so fascinating was they said, “Okay, we’re going to take a different approach to solving this problem of figuring out who is and isn’t connected. We’re going to give the addresses of all of our students anonymized, (so there’s no personally identifiable information, no names, anything like that), we’re going to give that information to the service providers in our state, or the service providers in our city, and we’re going to ask them to tell us who is currently a customer, i.e., who has internet access and then of the people who aren’t currently customers, which of those could you serve within 10 days?”

Broadband Service Providers Stepping Up

Evan Marwell:

This basically means they’ve already got infrastructure at the home, and it just needs to be turned on. When Chicago told me they were doing this, I laughed. I said, “You know, there’s no service provider on this planet that has ever given out their customer information like that.

Evan Marwell:

At any time for any reason.” They won’t even give it to the government. I said, “There’s no way they’re going to do this.” Then a week later, I got a call back from Chicago and they said, “They’re doing it.” I was like, “You’re kidding?” Sure enough, as they went through addresses, Chicago discovered that it had 100,000 out of its 350,000 students that didn’t have internet access at home, that those students were in 60,000 homes, and that 92% of those homes could be served by existing infrastructure that was already in place, from either the telephone company or a cable company. So then they went out, with money from a philanthropist in Chicago, and they procured 60,000 internet access lines.

Evan Marwell:

They have been steadily deploying them to all of those folks. I saw this and I said, “This is amazing,” and North Dakota basically did the same thing. I said, “We’ve got to take this to scale. This is the solution to the problem of figuring out who is and isn’t connected, and this is what unlocks the ability to really solve this problem at scale.” I went to the four major internet service providers’ associations, NCTA the cable association, USTelecom, which is the major service provider association and NTCA, which is the rural broadband association and ACA Connects, which is the smaller cable companies.

Evan Marwell:

I went to them and I said, “Look what’s happening in Chicago and North Dakota. This is a game-changer for kids. We’ve got to do this nationally. What do you think?” They were like, “Great idea,” and I was like, “Really?” They’re like, “Yeah, let us go talk to our members.” I said, “Great.” We worked out a set of five principles that they would approach their members to agree to, and they went and approached their members. I was completely blown away because we now have every major internet service provider, except one, and literally dozens and dozens of smaller internet service providers around the country. We’ve got now providers who cover in excess of 80% of the country that has agreed to participate in this program.

Evan Marwell:

If you had told me this would happen a year ago, I would have laughed and I would have said, “There’s no chance in the world that service providers would do this,” but just as service providers really stepped up to get schools connected, they’re now stepping up to help solve this problem, and I couldn’t be more thrilled!

Craig Corbin:

It’s mind-boggling and refreshing and inspiring to hear you relate the buy-in that you got literally across the board from the provider standpoint, and that is a huge victory in this process. Once you saw what was happening, first in Chicago and North Dakota, and then across the US, you had to feel that you were really getting close to success in closing the digital learning gap.

Evan Marwell:

This is the beginning. What we’ve learned from our work connecting schools, as I said before, is once you have the data, you can take the problem from being this amorphous thing that nobody can get their head around (and therefore, nobody’s willing to take a risk on trying to solve it) to a very clear, concise problem that says, “Okay, these are the kids that we need to connect. This is how much money it’s going to cost. These are the providers that need to be involved.” It becomes an execution problem, much more than like, “How the heck are we going to do this?”

Solving the Digital Divide

Evan Marwell:

It worked with schools and I am a hundred percent convinced that it is going to work to close the homework gap for kids, but beyond that, I actually think this could be the solution to solving the digital divide in America. Because when you look at the digital divide for our country, it’s the same problem. We don’t know who is, and isn’t connected and therefore, we can’t solve the problem. The good news is that I think while most of the attention gets paid to people who don’t have any broadband infrastructure available to them, the fact is that probably 80% of the digital divide is with people who have the broadband infrastructure available at their homes. They just can’t afford it and because we don’t know who they are, we can’t do anything to help them.

Craig Corbin:

It is exciting to know that the solution for the digital divide is incredibly simple and you and your organization have already proven that there is a way to get buy-in from everybody across the board to get the correct data. I think that speeds the process tremendously over what we have seen with the challenge of proper data mapping over the past number of years, for people who are without available broadband infrastructure.

Evan Marwell:

Data mapping of the infrastructure is absolutely critical, especially for solving the part of the puzzle, which is the people who have no options available to them.

Evan Marwell:

That’s why we’re big supporters of the Broadband DATA Act that Congress passed. It’s incredibly important that that gets funded, and we get underway with mapping that infrastructure, but the other thing is there’s another piece of data that we really need, which is who does and doesn’t subscribe to broadband internet.

The Bridge to Broadband Program

Evan Marwell:

Because as I said before, that’s actually the bigger problem, but the bridge to broadband program gives us a path to getting that done. The other thing that happens is once we have that data, it becomes much easier for policymakers to step up and put up the money to solve the problem, and that again is what we saw happen with schools. Once we had the data about what needed to be done to solve the K-12 school broadband gap, we were able to get the Federal Communications Commission to increase broadband funding by $2.5 billion a year through their E-Rate Program.

Evan Marwell:

On top of that, we were able to get virtually every state that needed to do fiber construction to their schools, to put up matching funds, literally hundreds of millions of dollars of matching funds to pay for fiber construction to their schools as part of that program, and that included some of the most conservative legislatures in the country. In Montana, they voted 99 to one to put up matching funds, so that their schools could get connected to fiber. I’m a huge believer based on the evidence that once we have this data, we’re going to be able to convince policymakers to take the step forward, which is to provide the funding that’s needed to then enable all of these folks to either get infrastructure built to them, or to pay for that the internet service on a recurring basis.

Craig Corbin:

If there is a silver lining to what we’ve gone through from a pandemic standpoint, it’s been the ability to get buy-in across the board, both sides of the aisle nationwide to address this huge digital divide

Acceleration and the Adoption of Digital Learning

Evan Marwell:

The pandemic has been incredibly hard for everybody in this country and especially for kids. But I agree with you that there are some silver linings that I believe are going to come out of the pandemic if we take advantage of them. One of them is going to be the acceleration and adoption of digital learning in schools, and another is I think, I hope is potentially major progress that we’re going to have an opportunity to make against solving the digital divide. The thing that’s really interesting about that is we’ve been talking about the digital divide for 10, 15 years, but really haven’t made very much progress.

Evan Marwell:

The reason for that really comes down to two things. Number one, we haven’t had the data to actually come up with a viable solution, and number two, we haven’t had the political will to pay for it, in part because we haven’t had the data. Well, now we have a shot at the data, and I think the pandemic has created the political will to actually say, “We’ve got to solve this problem,” because if you don’t have internet today as your listeners know, you can’t go to school, your job opportunities are dramatically limited, you can’t get healthcare, you can’t take advantage of government services, you can’t stay connected to your friends and family and your community. I mean, it is almost as important today as electricity and food are.

Craig Corbin:

I cannot agree more and there are many that consider connectivity to be a utility essential only behind electricity for our continued existence, and now what’s exciting is the momentum that you and your organization have created in this process.  I think the ripple effect will be felt far and wide across the country.

Broadband Service Providers & States Stepping Up

Evan Marwell:

Let’s hope so.  There’s obviously still a ton of work to do. We now have the opportunity, and it’s time for execution. I’m really encouraged because service providers are stepping up and following through on the commitments they’ve made as part of this program. States are now coming to the table and saying, “Okay, we want to do this.” We’re going to start seeing it get executed. We have an opportunity here, and I think I’m seeing “green shoots” in Congress and at the state level of folks coming up with funding at least in the short term. We definitely need a longer-term solution, but the reality is I believe we’re now in a place, where we have an opportunity to close the digital divide in this country, to make massive progress in the next four years, and to truly close it 10 years from now.

Evan Marwell:

If we haven’t closed the digital divide by 2030, it’s only because we lack the will to do so.

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