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The affordability gap is the biggest part of the digital divide

High-speed internet at home is a necessity for American families. Without it, kids can’t attend virtual classes or complete homework at home, and families can miss out on critical healthcare or government services.

However, 28.2 million U.S. households lack what has become a basic need, according to a new report by EducationSuperHighway, an education nonprofit that in 2019 helped to almost eliminate the internet connectivity gap in classrooms across the country.

Last year, as reported by The Hechinger Report’s Tara García Mathewson, the nonprofit group pivoted to solving the homework gap.

Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, said his team “learned a tremendous amount” during their research on the new report about the reasons 28 million households are still not connected to high-speed internet.

Most of these households, he said, “have infrastructure available at their home but they just can’t afford to sign up for a broadband service.” Only a third of those without broadband access blame a lack of infrastructure; the remaining two thirds without access say they can’t afford it, Marwell said.

In 43 states, that affordability gap accounts for the largest share of the digital divide, according to the EducationSuperHighway report. Issues around broadband affordability disproportionately affect low-income, Black, and Latinx communities. The nonprofit is launching EducationSuperHighway 2.0 to tackle the broadband affordability gap.

The announcement of the new program came with the release of the nonprofit’s report, “No home left offline” which breaks down the broadband affordability gap across the country and outlines key recommendations for policymakers, internet service providers and school districts.

“Policymakers have been talking about the digital divide for decades, but we’ve been closing it at a pace of about 1 percent a year,” Marwell said. “The pandemic really changed the political will. We’ve seen the federal government step up and say, ‘You know what, we need to pay for that.’”

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The federal American Rescue Plan Act, passed last spring, and the recently approved infrastructure bill could add as much as $85 billion in federal funding for broadband infrastructure, affordability and broadband adoption programs, according to the report.

Marwell argues that the broadband affordability gap is a solvable problem, one that can be fixed with money and effort. Under the bipartisan infrastructure bill, money will be provided: Funding for the federal Emergency Broadband Benefit Program — to be renamed the Affordable Connectivity Program — will increase by $14.2 billion to help households afford a broadband connection.

The next challenge, however, is to get people to sign up. About 16.4 percent of eligible Americans were enrolled in the federal EBB initiative as of October 2021. Marwell said his organization plans to launch a broadband adoption center program to help families enroll for the federal programs and get home broadband service.

In the meantime, EducationSuperHighway is trying to tackle other barriers through efforts that include building stronger public-private partnerships at the state and local levels, identifying students who lack a broadband connection and setting up free Wi-Fi for low-income apartment buildings.

Pilot initiatives are already in the works. Last year, for example, the group partnered with the city of Oakland, California to install free Wi-Fi networks in five apartment buildings.

Marwell said states and districts must seize this “moment of opportunity,” as they prepare to receive federal dollars, to help bridge the broadband affordability gap.

“We need to act because if we can’t make real progress against the digital divide, today, and in this environment, I don’t know when we ever are,” Marwell said. “There will never be more of a sense of urgency around it than there is today.”

This story about the digital divide was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Only a third of those without broadband access blame a lack of infrastructure; the remaining two thirds without access say they can’t afford it.