Nov 4, 2021 - Technology

New digital divide fix: Free apartment-house WiFi

Illustration of a dollar sign made from wifi symbols

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A national nonprofit backed by Silicon Valley luminaries is proposing to set up free WiFi in apartment buildings as one solution to an intractable problem — ensuring those who have access to the internet can actually afford it.

Why it matters: While there are public and private programs meant to help lower the cost of internet service, such as the Federal Communications Commission's new Emergency Broadband Benefit, barriers remain for millions of U.S. households.

Driving the news: EducationSuperHighway on Thursday unveiled a new campaign and report, titled No Home Left Offline, that includes a proposal to deploy free WiFi networks in low-income apartment buildings.

  • In "America's most unconnected communities," 20% to 25% of those without broadband access live in apartment buildings, according to the new report.
  • Deploying free WiFi networks in these buildings, using federal funding, could ensure families can afford service and avoid some of the bureaucratic hurdles of enrolling in government programs.

What they're saying: "As the federal government puts up the money, we know that the biggest problem is adoption — getting people to sign up for these subsidy programs," EducationSuperHighway CEO Evan Marwell told Axios.

  • "There's no adoption problems in hotel lobbies or libraries. Everybody knows if you've got a device, look for the free WiFi network and you're connected, right? So we said what if we could bring that approach to where people live."

Yes, but: Building free WiFi networks in apartment buildings will be no small feat.

  • EducationSuperHighway said it will work with Oakland, Calif., to deploy free WiFi in 127 buildings by using the city's new WiFi network, at a cost of less than $100 per month to the building landlords.
  • Potential barriers to the broader effort, Marwell said, include working with old buildings that make WiFi networks challenging and ensuring that the monthly cost to landlords is low enough that they can afford the service.

Catch up quick: EducationSuperHighway launched in 2012 with a mission to ensure American classrooms have access to high-speed internet.

  • In 2020, with 99% of schools connected to broadband, the group planned to disband. Then the pandemic happened.
  • Now, with $16 million in funding from Laurene Powell Jobs' Emerson Collective, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Zoom Cares Fund and others, EducationSuperHighway has targeted a new goal — closing the broadband affordability gap.

The big picture: Congress already has dedicated billions to broadband access and affordability programs, including the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit that provides a $50 monthly discount for internet service.

  • 7 million households have signed up for the FCC's program since it began this summer. EducationSuperHighway estimates that 37 million households are eligible for the program.
  • But lack of awareness, lack of trust and difficulty in enrollment are among the barriers to widespread adoption of free and low-cost broadband programs.
  • EducationSuperHighway intends to work with trusted community-based organizations, such as schools, to create broadband adoption centers that will reach out to eligible households and help them enroll.

Meanwhile, some communities are looking to new business models to extend internet service to the residents.

  • New York City late last month announced a plan to spend $157 million to build publicly owned, open-access broadband infrastructure to provide affordable connectivity options.

What's next: Marwell says he hopes to deploy free WiFi networks in apartment buildings in three to five cities to start.

  • "Before the pandemic, we talked a ton about the digital divide but we didn't really do anything about it," Marwell said. "The pandemic has changed it. If we don't take advantage of this opportunity to really make progress now, I don't know when we ever will."

Disclosure: Laurene Powell Jobs is an investor in Axios.

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