hand of someone attaching a cable to a router

TechSoup's Joaquin Alvarado and Helping to Close the Digital Divide

Our members know and depend on TechSoup for our work to bring them donated and discounted high-tech products and services plus the know-how to use them. There are a lot of things that we do that are behind the scenes and not so well known to help those in desperate need. Here is an example of a highly engaged board member, a marketing team, and thousands of members who pitched in to get free broadband to low-income Alabama families last fall. We think this is a pretty darned interesting story. We hope you like it.

drawing of two women and a man sitting on clouds and using laptops, with the wireless access symbol in the background

Digital Poverty

The pandemic and moving to nearly universal distance learning for several months in the U.S. revealed that tens of millions of Americans do not have access to home broadband Internet. By April 2020, teachers at schools across the United States reported that fewer than half of their students (account needed) were regularly participating in online classes. It became crystal clear that the United States still has a massive digital divide, especially in rural areas.

The ABC for Students Program

One of the largest and most successful programs to do something significant about the situation during the pandemic was developed in Alabama. It is called the ABC for Students program. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey committed funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to deliver free Internet access to low-income K-12 students in their homes this past school year. The State of Alabama allocated the funds so their school children could participate in distance learning. Governor Ivey directed Kenneth Boswell, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA), and his team to create the program and get it going quickly. One huge problem was getting the word out to the low-income families who could benefit from the program. The schools were having a hard time reaching them. What to do?

Enter Joaquin Alvarado

TechSoup has had extraordinary board members over the years, and Joaquin Alvarado was certainly one of them. He has been the CEO of the Center for Investigative Reporting and an executive with American Public Media, and he is currently the executive producer at the creative media and consulting agency Studio To Be. He is an ambitious man toward social change. He says of his agency, "We don't believe in just moving the needle, we believe in moving the scale."

He found out about Alabama's outreach problem from broadband market expert Joanne Hovis of CTC Technology, who was the lead consulting partner with ADECA. Joaquin got to work mobilizing his network. One of his first stops was a request to TechSoup's senior director of marketing and communications, Annie Dizon. Joaquin's view was that this project was like a Mars landing in importance. He says that "nothing of this scale has been attempted, so we need to reach all channels."

Joaquin Alvarado has a long history of working on digital divide issues. As founding director of the Institute for Next Generation Internet at San Francisco State University in the first decade of this century, he had a clear vision of a national high-speed network infrastructure that could enable community and network building toward the values of fairness and access for everyone. The country, it turns out, is just now catching up with him. The Biden administration's infrastructure plan proposes to invest $100 billion to give every American access to affordable, reliable, and high-speed broadband. Senators on opposite ends of the political spectrum have just written books (account needed) calling for us to curb the power of the tech giants so we can return to citizen engagement.

Connecting with the Right People

After Joaquin alerted us to the situation, our marketing team had a quick huddle about what we might do to connect with people so that things can happen on the ground. We did targeted messaging about the Alabama free broadband program for our nonprofit and library audiences in our September issues of our By the Cup newsletter and our TechSoup for Libraries newsletter. Here's an example of our call to action:

"Help us get the word out! If you’re an Alabama-based library worker or know someone who is, the good news is that all Alabama low-income households with children who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals can also get free broadband. The bad news is that families need to find out about this and sign up. Please direct parents and households to call the ABC for Students call line at 1-888-212-4998."

TechSoup also mobilized our social media team and messaged across all the major social media channels including some paid targeted Facebook ads. We also did direct outreach to the right people at the Alabama Library Association and the Association for Rural & Small Libraries.

The result? Thanks to people like Joaquin Alvarado, our members, and many, many others, over 200,000 Alabama students have gotten access to broadband service through ABC for Students over the course of the program. We connected to the right people, and they made things happen.

With a Little Help from Our Friends

We are proud to have had a chance to participate in this project. Like Joaquin Alvarado, we are pretty ambitious toward social change. With a little help from our nonprofit, faith-based-organization, and library friends, we don't believe in just moving the needle, we sincerely believe in moving the scale.

Top photo: Shutterstock