Non-profit aims to close digital divide with free apartment Wi-Fi

The national non-profit EducationSuperHighway began a new mission to close the digital divide. The group says that closing the digital divide is more than just ensuring that every home has access to a provider. It says although 28.2 million households in the United States do not have high-speed broadband, 18 million of those households have access to the internet but simply can't afford to connect. This accounts for two-thirds of the digital divide.

“Affordability has now emerged as the number one barrier to closing the digital divide,” said Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, in a statement. 

Although there are programs to help Americans obtain access to the internet — including the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program — as few as 17% of Americans eligible for federal broadband affordability programs have enrolled. The paltry uptake is due to a lack of awareness, distrust and enrollment barriers.

In fact, even the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been having a bit of a hard time getting the word out about the EBB program, which provides a $50 monthly discount for internet service.

RELATED: Emergency Broadband Benefit still has $2.7B out of $3.2B available

According to the latest data on the FCC tracker page, of the nearly $3.2 billion in available funds for the EBB program, about $859 million has been allocated, so far. That leaves more than $2.2 billion still available to help low-income households get broadband service at a reduced cost.

One way the FCC is trying to drive awareness of the EBB program is by working with community groups such as boys and girls clubs, YMCAs, food banks and libraries to name a few.

EducationSuperHighway aims to help. It has a three-pronged strategy to close the broadband affordability gap, which it outlines in a new report:

  1. It plans to collect broadband adoption data at the address level to target outreach and adoption efforts and track progress.
  2. It will launch broadband adoption programs to help ISPs sign up eligible households for federal broadband programs and home broadband service.
  3. It will deploy free Wi-Fi to low-income apartment buildings, eliminating the need for households to sign-up for broadband service altogether.

Wi-Fi in apartments

The Wi-Fi strategy is particularly interesting. According to EducationSuperHighway, in America’s most unconnected communities, 20-25% of the digital divide is concentrated in multi-dwelling units.

“Modeled after the success of free Wi-Fi networks in hotels, airports, and coffee shops, the installation of free Wi-Fi networks in low-income apartment buildings has the potential to rapidly close 20% of the digital divide without requiring unconnected households to overcome the myriad of challenges that prevent them from enrolling in federal broadband programs and ISPs' affordable broadband plans,” stated EducationSuperHighway’s report.

To kick off its free Wi-Fi initiative, the group is partnering with the City of Oakland, California, which it’s already been working with to install free Wi-Fi networks in five apartment buildings. It worked with ISPs that already had service in the buildings. The total cost to building owners has ranged from $200-500 per month.

Now, EducationSuperHighway is partnering with Oakland to roll out free apartment Wi-Fi in 127 low-income apartment buildings across the city, leveraging Oakland’s city internet access. The city is providing internet service to the roof of each building, and EducationSuperHighway is connecting this internet access to Wi-Fi infrastructure throughout the building.

Wi-Fi access points are simply installed in common areas and hallways without the need for wiring in individual apartments.

Deploying free apartment Wi-Fi solves the two main barriers to connecting low-income households. First, it solves the affordability problem by making internet access free. Second, it solves the adoption problem by eliminating the need for households to sign-up for broadband service.


The Wi-Fi could potentially be funded by helping low-income apartment owners tap federal broadband benefits to provide the free service in their buildings.

There are several federal initiatives — including the American Rescue Plan, the Capital Projects Fund and the infrastructure bill (if it ever passes) — and free Wi-Fi networks in low-income apartment buildings is an allowable use of those funds.

RELATED: U.S. government funding sources for broadband

In addition, several philanthropic organizations are contributing to a $16-million investment in EducationSuperHighway’s mission, including the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Walton Family Foundation and the Zoom Cares Fund.