When you trace back the path leading to a momentous idea, it's funny how you usually find that it originates at a confluence of some, seemingly unrelated, set of circumstances. For Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, an organization established to ensure that every child in every public school in America would have broadband Internet access in the classroom, a few such key events in his life in 2012 created the tide that moved him to action.
"I had just read a book entitled Bold Endeavors that was comprised of ten vignettes of infrastructure projects that changed the face of America, things like the Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, rural electrification," said Marwell. "And every one of them followed a similar pattern in which some crazy guy would have an idea for this huge infrastructure project, and he'd just keep working at it and working at it until the government showed up with the money to make it actually happen."
A self-described 'serial entrepreneur,' Marwell had, at the time, recently completed his latest venture and was looking for his next challenge. Moved by the stories he'd read in this book and impressed by the scale of these accomplishments, he developed a desire to attempt a similar feat, but had no idea what kind of infrastructure project he could tackle. Marwell made a mental note of his new aspiration that he carried with him as he moved through the subsequent days.
"It was around this time that I found out about Khan Academy," he recalls, "and I thought it was great. I was on the board of my daughter's school, and I went to the teachers there and said, 'Hey, Khan Academy … you should use that!' They said, 'Oh we tried, but it didn't work.'"
Not quite sure what to make of their response, Marwell initially wondered if perhaps they'd had the students try it but didn't receive the desired learning outcomes. When he inquired further, he learned that the effort never got that far. They'd tried all right, but having so many kids on the site at once, the Internet at the school literally stopped working. "It was like sucking peanut butter through a straw!" he quips. When he looked into the school's Internet access, he found that it was ill-prepared to handle wide use by the students. "So I sort of filed that in the back of my head, too," he says, "Internet in school."
In January 2012, Marwell was invited to participate in a special roundtable event at the White House in consideration of a previous project he'd worked on. His recollection of the event conjures images of Jimmy Stewart in the old film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but in this version Mr. Smith had multiple degrees from Harvard. "The theme was 'How do we make America better with technology?'" he recalls. Not quite sure what to expect, Marwell was caught slightly off guard when, after giving a short speech, the chief technology officer (CTO) of the United States, Aneesh Chopra, began to go around the table, asking each participant what project they felt would enable the country to gain the most benefit from technology. "I thought, 'What the heck am I going to talk about?'" recalls Marwell. "Then the broadband thing came to me, and I'd done a little bit of research that showed that 80 percent of the schools in America had lousy broadband."
When it was his turn to speak, Marwell blurted out, "We need to fix the school broadband problem!" The CTO was immediately puzzled by his suggestion. "What broadband problem? All of our schools have broadband. There’s this federal program called 'E-Rate' that provides $2.4 Billion a year to pay for it," Marwell recalls Chopra exclaiming in retort. "Yeah," replied Marwell, "but they all have cable modems, and they have lousy Wi-Fi."
"He sort of looked at me for a second," Marwell remembers, "and then he moved on to the next guy. And I thought that would be the end of that."
It wasn't. When President Obama later joined the group, asking what ideas they'd developed, Chopra pulled Marwell aside. "Hey, you should go fix that problem," the CTO told him.
"What problem?" replied Marwell.
"The school broadband problem!" stated Chopra.
"Well, I thought we were here to tell you what to fix!" said Marwell.
"Let me tell you a secret," explained the CTO, "We're the government. We don't fix anything. We just make policy. But, seriously, you should go start a nonprofit to do that."
"And that was the beginning of EducationSuperHighway," says Marwell, "because, in fact, he was right. Generally speaking, government is not really effective at implementation. They're good at creating resources, creating awareness, creating policies that enable implementation, but they can't really implement. And this challenge was definitely an implementation and execution challenge."
For Marwell, the business of reaching the goal of ensuring that every public school in America had Internet access and broadband seemed far less complicated than some of his previous projects. "We didn’t have to invent anything. Fiber existed. Wi-Fi existed. We actually didn't have to obtain resources because there was always this $2.4 billion a year program. Now we did sort of fix E-Rate a little. But what we really had to do was get districts to take action and to execute. So Aneesh Chopra was right, the government was not going to solve this problem. We needed an organization like EducationSuperHighway to do it. So that's when we launched."
Initially, EducationSuperHighway set out to create an awareness of the problem, launching the "National School Speedcast," through which 800,000 people in 35,000 schools tested their broadband, establishing, for the first time ever, a data set to illustrate the actual existence of a problem. This enabled Marwell and his group to step out of the realm of anecdotes and surveys, armed with real numbers.
That data enabled them to compel President Obama to launch his ConnectED initiative and, just as importantly, to convince the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to revisit its E-rate program and implement some needed modernization to take the missive from the 20th century, when it was originated, into the brave new world of the 21st century, when it would finally accomplish what it was intended to achieve.
During that revamping process, EducationSuperHighway gathered more data to highlight exactly how the E-rate money was being spent. According to the FCC, approximately $1 billion was being wasted on phone service annually, and the ensuing adjustments resulted in the FCC increasing its spending on broadband from $1.4 billion to $3.9 billion annually.
"Huge changes," remarks Marwell, "They also allocated a billion dollars of that money to pay for Wi-Fi in every classroom, and, for several years prior, no schools had gotten any money for Wi-Fi. And they may give access to lots of new options for schools to obtain fiber."
The final phase of their work involved that previously mentioned execution. "We created awareness of the problem," says Marwell. "We have the money. And now we have to execute. We actually have to get districts to upgrade. So, we've partnered with governors across the country. We have 46 governors who've publicly committed to upgrading all of their schools. We have projects going with about 26 or 27 of them through which we put teams in place in each state to identify which school districts need upgrades. We help them write a Request for Proposal (RFP), and then we go out and we recruit service providers or Wi-Fi equipment vendors to get on each RFP, so that the schools get the best deals possible."
The result of their efforts has been resounding success. In the last four years, EducationSuperHighway has connected 35 million children to high-speed Internet. They've brought fiber to 97 percent of the schools in the country. They've more than tripled the number of schools with Wi-Fi, from 25 percent to 88 percent. And they've lowered the cost of broadband for schools by 78 percent. "And so," says Marwell, "we are about 85-90 percent done with our mission. Our goal is to be completely done by the start of school in September 2020. Then we go out of business!"
How is it that Marwell and his team have made it to the doorstep of complete fulfillment of their goal? Marwell attributes his group's favorable results to a few critical factors. "No. 1," he says, "it's an issue that everyone supports. I tell everyone that sometimes I feel like I'm the luckiest salesman in the country, like a guy selling ice cream on a 95-degree day! Everybody wants it. Everybody wants broadband for kids. We've enjoyed bipartisan support."
Focus is another contributing factor, according to Marwell. "There are 100,000 schools in America. We need to get broadband in every one of them. That enabled us to focus and to say no to a lot of other stuff and not experience 'mission creep,' if you will." Such a high level of focus enabled Marwell to hire an impressive team of folks from both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors and allowed them to attract a substantial amount of funding — some $60 million — from the likes of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and others.
There was one other thing. In an effort to equip themselves with all of the data they might need to attempt to drive policy change, Marwell and his team found themselves in possession of all the data detailing who was buying what from whom and at what price. "We put it all on the Internet!" he says. For the first time ever, schools could see what kinds of deals their peers were getting, and they could take that information and ask their service providers for the same. "Price transparency," proclaims Marwell, "is what's driven down the cost of broadband."
In his examination of their success Marwell is generous with credit. His team, the donors, their partners at the state and district level, even the service providers, receive heaps of gratitude. He sounds like a man well satisfied by his victory. However, he is equally quick to point out the work that is still to be done before he and his team can claim the win.
"We still have six-and-a-half million kids to go. We still have 2,000 schools that need fiber. And we still have 10,000 schools that need Wi-Fi," he states. "We've got to get to zero, and we've got to get there in the next three years."
You gain a sense of maybe another factor that has contributed to the remarkable record of success that EducationSuperHighway has established since its inception in 2012: the determination of their leader. His eyes narrow, and his tone takes on an aspect of seriousness that hasn't really been present during the happy recollection of the genesis of his work and his triumphs thus far, "America — through the president, through our governors, through the FCC — has made a promise to connect these kids and ensure that they have the same access to educational opportunity, no matter where they live or how wealthy they are or aren't, and we've absolutely got to fulfill that promise by finishing that job."
There is nothing to know about Evan Marwell that allows for even the slightest doubt that he will do just that.