How the Pandemic Gave EducationSuperHighway a New Lane
After Evan Marwell's company helped rebuild the digital infrastructure of America’s schools, it turned to a more challenging—and urgent—problem: ensuring home internet access for the nation's students
Nearly a decade ago, most public schools had slow internet connections. More than 7 in 10 schools in 2012 lacked connection speeds fast enough to support online tutorials, interactive games, or even the basic classroom software that was fast becoming mainstream in American education.
Evan Marwell thought he might be able to fix the problem. After a successful career as an investor and tech entrepreneur, Marwell was looking for a cause where his expertise might make a difference. A problem at his daughter’s school led him to discover the breadth of the slow-internet problem in America's classroom, and he started EducationSuperHighway in 2012 with a mission to upgrade the connections at every public school in America. Working with federal policymakers, state government, and broadband providers over the last nine years, Marwell and his team have succeeded in bringing nearly all public schools up to reliable internet speeds, and they’ve helped drive down the cost of broadband access by more than 85%.
I was introduced to Evan a few months ago by former FCC chairman Michael Powell, who is a big fan of EducationSuperHighway’s work. I loved learning about Evan’s pragmatic, data-driven approach to bringing high-speed internet into America’s schools.
We spoke recently about how EducationSuperHighway achieved that huge goal and what it’s doing now to extend home internet access for millions of students trying to learn remotely.
Your career was in business analytics and finance. How did you get interested in broadband infrastructure?
It was a series of fortunate events. I was reading Bold Endeavors by Felix Rohatyn, who helped save New York in the 1970s, when it was going bankrupt. He was a real policy wonk and wrote this book about big infrastructure projects that had changed America—things like the Erie Canal, Transcontinental Railroad, and rural electrification. What I took away from that book was all of these big investments followed the same pattern: Some person had a crazy vision for transforming infrastructure, and they kept evangelizing for it until the government showed up with the money. So I thought, Great! I just need to come up with a crazy infrastructure idea, evangelize it, and change the face of America!
And you decided on school-based broadband?
I served on the board of my daughter’s school in San Francisco. I had heard about Khan Academy, and I told the principal and teachers we should be using video lessons from Khan. They kept saying it didn’t work. I realized they meant it literally didn’t work—the videos would freeze and crash—because this whole school of 400 kids was using a basic cable modem and a Wi-Fi network that was about five years old.
At the time, I had a cable modem in my house for five people, and my kids were always complaining about how slow the internet was. So you can just imagine what it was like for this whole school to be crawling along with slow internet. One kid told me it was like trying to suck peanut butter through a straw. And I thought, If this private school in the heart of Silicon Valley has lousy internet, I’ll bet a lot of schools have lousy internet.
And they did. Something like 90% of schools simply didn’t have the bandwidth to do effective digital learning in the classroom. When we upgraded my daughter’s school to a fiber connection and a modern Wi-Fi network, it transformed what they could do with these new online learning tools. Now we just needed to do that for every school in America.
Third grade teacher Cara Denison speaks to students while live streaming her class via Google Meet at Rogers International School on November 19, 2020, in Stamford, Connecticut.
So now you’ve got the crazy vision, and you have to start evangelizing for it?
Right. During the Obama administration, I was Invited to a roundtable at the White House where a bunch of people were telling the government how to make America better using the internet. I told them about the school internet problem. Aneesh Chopra, the first Chief Technology Officer of the United States, comes and sits down next to me. “Hey, you should go fix that—that slow internet problem,” he said. And I’m thinking, Wait, you’re the government—you’re supposed to go fix that. But here’s the thing: the government doesn’t have the ability to execute on new problems. It has the bully pulpit, it has the ability to set goals and policy, and it can provide funding. But it can’t actually do the work because all of the management capacity they have is committed to all the stuff government already does. Getting it to take on something new is really hard. So I thought about it for a few days and decided I needed to start EducationSuperHighway to solve it. That’s how we got started.
You’re talking about upgrading the internet connection at more than 100,000 schools across the country. Where do you even begin tackling a problem like that?
Data. You need good data. We knew there was this E-Rate program, which provided federal funds to connect schools and libraries, but we knew it wasn’t effective. It was spending $2.4 billion a year, and 90% of schools have lousy internet. So it’s not working. We created the national school speed test and partnered with a lot of nonprofits to get the word out. Then we partnered with state departments of education. We were able to get 800,000 people in schools across the country to test their broadband, and then we could take that data to the federal Department of Education and say, “Look, there’s a problem. You need to spend this $2.4 billion better.”
Around the same time, President Obama nominated Tom Wheeler to be chairman of the FCC. I met with Wheeler before he was confirmed and gave him my pitch, and he set up a process at the FCC that was driven by all this new data about what schools actually needed. Because we had data and other lobbying groups had opinions, we ran the table on our policy agenda. That included things like phasing out support for phone service to free up more funding for broadband; allowing schools to take advantage of all the same options that businesses could, like building their own fiber to the school; and total transparency around cost, so every school in the E-Rate program could see what everyone else was paying. We took all that info and put it online, which helped drive down the cost of broadband for schools by almost 90%.
Hollywood High Special Education teacher Shirley Woods conducts class remotely on September 8, 2020, in Los Angeles, California.
By last year, EducationSuperHighway had essentially achieved its goal of upgrading the internet connections at all the school buildings in America, and you were planning to close the organization—mission accomplished! What happened to that plan when the pandemic hit?
That’s right. Last year, we declared “Mission accomplished!” We thought we’d be going out of business by August. We were ready to put our feet up and have a bunch of parties. Then the pandemic hit. When they shut all the schools down and sent all the kids home, 10 or 15 million of them didn’t have internet access. People started calling us—governors, school districts—asking, “What are we going to do about these kids with no home internet?”
People had been asking us to work on this problem for years and I had always said no—not because it wasn’t an important issue, but because we needed to stay focused on our mission. And, frankly, because we didn’t think it was solvable. There wasn’t the political will to pay for it, and we didn’t really have the data on who wasn’t connected and why. Now, of course, the political will has changed a lot. As a country, we used to say that if you don’t have internet at home that’s your family’s problem. Now if you don’t have internet you can’t learn at all, so it becomes your school’s problem. We have to step in.
Have you found effective ways of doing that? Home internet access seems like an even tougher problem than getting schools up to broadband speeds.
Once again, we’re really focused on the data problem. If you can find out who isn’t connected, you can form public-private partnerships to start getting them online. In Chicago, school district officials were able to give local internet service providers the addresses of all their students, and the company could tell them who wasn’t online. And then the district did an RFP [request for proposal] to pay for the kids who didn’t have internet. We’re now trying to scale that across the country through a program called K-12 Bridge to Broadband. Schools give us addresses, we farm them out to the right service providers to learn who’s connected and who isn’t, and we tell the schools. We now have more than 80 service providers that have signed on. We’re working with six or seven states and hoping we’ll grow that soon.
In the meantime, there’s this nagging issue of how you actually pay for the broadband access. There are two big things we have to do to close the digital divide for all Americans. First, we have to build out infrastructure to the people who truly have no options, no service providers in their area. And that’s largely one-time money. Then we have the ongoing affordability problem: people who have broadband available but can’t pay for it. We believe that’s a $3 to $5 billion-a-year problem, in terms of the subsidies needed to make fast internet affordable to every American.
A sign in front of King Elementary School encourages students to participate in remote learning on September 8, 2020, in Chicago, Illinois.
Are you hopeful this can get solved as successfully as the school connection problem?
Yes, and I think we need a new model of how to work with government on challenges like this. There are a lot of people who tell the government what the problems are. They produce reports, write op-eds, lobby Congress. Some of these groups suggest solutions. But what very few people do is offer the execution capacity to fix it. What we did with EducationSuperHighway is pick a finite goal, provide the data on exactly what it will take to accomplish it, and we provided the management capacity to work with the states, work with the schools, and work with the internet providers to get this done.
You need all three sectors—nonprofit sector, private sector, and government sector—if you want to solve problems at scale. We couldn’t have done this if there weren’t a whole universe of broadband providers and installers who could actually do the work, and we couldn’t have done it without federal money to incentivize those providers. What we did as a nonprofit was provide the expertise and the management, mostly behind the scenes. You’ll be amazed what you can accomplish if you let other people take the credit. So we spend tons of time getting federal policymakers the credit, getting state governors the credit, getting internet service providers the credit. It’s this virtual cycle—you do something together, they get credit for it, and they want to do more of that. If more nonprofits would approach problems this way, where they bring real data and capacity to the table, we can help government become much more effective.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.