Free Apartment Wi-Fi: A New Approach to Closing the Digital Divide
As more and more services move online, eliminating the digital divide between Americans who do and do not have access to high speed broadband internet is more important than ever. The 28.2 million American households that don’t have broadband access are unable to participate in online learning, virtual healthcare appointments or remote work. For 18 million of these households, the primary barrier is affordability.
Since May 2021, the FCC has offered an Emergency Broadband Benefit program that gives eligible households a $50 monthly discount on their broadband bills. Eligibility criteria include households on Medicaid, those receiving SNAP benefits, those with children who receive free or reduced-price school lunches, and those who have lost jobs or income in the past year. Despite the existence of the program, only 17% of eligible households are using it, and more than $2.2 billion of the program’s $3.2 billion budget is still available. Several factors limit participation in federal broadband affordability programs, ranging from a simple lack of awareness that the program exists to barriers to successfully enrolling.
A New Approach
EducationSuperHighway is a nonprofit promoting the idea that high-speed internet access is a necessity, not a luxury, in today’s world. The organization is dedicated to eliminating the digital divide, and its focus is on households for whom affordability rather than lack of infrastructure is the issue. To achieve this goal, it is implementing a three-part strategy:
- Collecting more granular data to support more targeted outreach and accurately monitor progress
- Working with internet service providers to sign households up for federal broadband affordability programs
- Setting up building-wide free Wi-Fi service in low-income apartments
Since nearly a quarter of households that are unable to afford internet access live in apartment buildings, EducationSuperHighway has made these households a key part of their approach. The free apartment Wi-Fi program is based on the way internet access is offered to hotel guests. One centrally managed subscription covers the entire building, rather than each individual hotel room or apartment having its own, and residents receive login information to connect to the existing network.
This innovative approach has several benefits. Since it’s free for residents, any concerns about affordability are eliminated. All implementation is handled at the building level, so individuals don’t need to worry about applying for a federal assistance program or signing up for broadband service themselves. This allows households to benefit from new access to internet service without needing to take any action other than logging in.
Free hotel Wi-Fi has become a standard amenity as hotels added it to stay competitive with each other. The potential for a similar effect, with free Wi-Fi becoming a desirable offering for apartment buildings and a good way to attract renters, makes this policy appealing for landlords as well. Setup and maintenance costs are minimal, and the monthly cost is relatively low for building owners. In addition, federal affordability support funds may be able to be applied here.
Oakland Pilot Program
EducationSuperHighway is working with the city of Oakland, California to get started with its free apartment Wi-Fi program. Wi-Fi will be installed in 127 apartment buildings in the city, with the city providing the internet service and the nonprofit connecting it to Wi-Fi infrastructure in each building. The cost for building owners so far has ranged from $200-500 monthly.
Both federal and private philanthropic funding is available for owners of low-income apartment buildings to provide free Wi-Fi service. The American Rescue Plan and the infrastructure bill both include funds that can be used for this purpose. In addition, several large foundations have contributed a total of $16 million to EducationSuperHighway to support its work in this area. Providing free Wi-Fi service to low-income apartments is a promising approach to solving the digital divide.
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