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Back-to-School help for students without internet

For millions of families, broadband access is a challenge. These resources can help bridge that digital divide.

Coronavirus and the Classroom
Coronavirus and the Classroom

For Marcy Gage, getting decent broadband service for her home has been a 15-year battle. Because of her location in rural Maine, she's had to rely on expensive-yet-spotty satellite internet because the local cable company stopped laying lines about 2,000 feet from her house.

According to Charter/Spectrum, the cost to run that extra length was $60,000, well above what Gage can afford to pay. And the special "pandemic" rate she's now getting from her satellite company concludes in September. Instead of $26 a month, she'll have to pay $75 for the same below-par service.

In the interim, she is working from home, sharing an internet connection that regularly tops out at 5 to 7Mbps with her middle-school-age son, who's about to start remote classes. "We can't both be online at the same time. And if we hit our data cap, the service gets bumped down to nearly no speed at all," she says.

For rural families like Gage's and millions more in the heart of U.S. cities, the digital divide between Americans who can easily access the internet and those who cannot is a growing concern and it's likely to increase dramatically in the weeks ahead, as U.S. students face the challenges of remote learning. 

“If it wasn’t glaringly clear before, the pandemic has confirmed the vital importance of a broadband internet connection—one that is reliable, affordable, and in some cases, simply available,” says Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel in Consumers Reports’ Washington, D.C., office. “Unfortunately, far too many Americans—18 million, according to the FCC, and up to 42 by other accounts—lack access or are unable to afford broadband.”

Minority households are among the most affected. A new state-by-state report on America's K-12 students by Common Sense and Boston Consulting finds that while 18 percent of white households lack broadband, 26 percent of Latinx and 30 percent of Black homes with students don't have adequate access. The percentage is even higher among Native American households.

"Every school-aged child deserves an education," says John Windhausen Jr., director of the nonprofit Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition. "Unfortunately, for at least the next few months, most education will take place online. Students who cannot take classes online will fall behind their peers and may be disadvantaged for many years to come."

If your family is struggling to get broadband access, there are resources that can help you bridge the gap. In the story below, we review assistance programs offered by various schools, local libraries, the federal government, internet providers, and others. To cobble together a solution, you may have to rely on a few in your area. 

School Districts

Ever since the shift to remote learning last spring, school districts across the country have been scrambling to provide laptops and tablets to students in need. But many are now focusing on WiFi access, too, partnering with city and state agencies, community groups, and philanthropic organizations to offer support.

In the St. Paul Public School system in Minnesota, for example, which has outfitted all its students with iPads and keyboards, tech coach Erik Peterson says the district has partnered with Comcast so kids without access to broadband at home can check out wireless hotspots. It's also providing technical assistance for parents, students, and teachers who need help with equipment or online programs such as Zoom.

"Our district has a fairly robust, centralized tech help system, so even when the schools aren't open, we can provide support by phone or email," Peterson says.

In Hartford, Connecticut, people have come up with an ambitious plan to give every resident access to free, high-speed internet within the next year. The majority of neighborhoods will receive wired fiber internet, while others will receive LTE high-speed internet.

There's even help for students who lack a permanent residence, either because they're homeless, waiting for foster care, or recovering from a natural disaster, says Heather Anderson, transitional students services coordinator for Paducah Public Schools in Kentucky.

"Parents in this situation should reach out to the local school district, as a federal law called the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires all school districts to appoint a staff member as a local homeless education liaison," she explains. 

Money from this spring's stimulus bill—the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (or CARES) Act—is still flowing into local school districts, too. The package earmarked $30.7 billion for states to spend on education, including technology, to help address the digital divide.

In Philadelphia, CARE money will help provide computers and free internet access to 35,000 low-income families. In Chicago, it will put WiFi in the hands of 100,000 students for at least four years. And in Texas, $200 million is funding Operation Connectivity, a program to get Apple iPads, one million laptops, and 480,000 WiFi hotspots, into the hands of students before the start of the school year.

Public Libraries

Libraries across the country are stepping up programs launched in the spring to provide students and parents with access to laptops, tablets, WiFi hotspots, and technical help.

“With stay-at-home orders reshaping education, many students are unable to participate in the online learning most states require,” says Marijke Visser, senior policy advocate at the American Library Association’s Public Policy and Advocacy Office in Washington, D.C. “As a result, local libraries continue to step up within their communities to help address issues, including internet access, that might not be otherwise addressed.”

Since students in Paducah, Kentucky, are now outfitted with Chromebooks, the McCracken County Public Library has partnered with the local school district, power authority, and municipal housing authority, to identify and provide those in need with WiFi hotspots, says school outreach coordinator Matt Jaeger.

For parents who are now serving as teachers, Visser says, some public libraries have created course packs and instructional materials. "They're also providing research materials kids can use on their own or in partnership with school libraries," she adds.

Other libraries are developing and publishing maps that point out public WiFi hotspots for those who can't connect at home.

Like many organizations, the McCracken library is open, but limits the number of people inside. Most of the libraries we contacted for this article say they keep their WiFi operational round the clock, so it can be used by patrons in parking lots and nearby gathering spots. Some also use bookmobiles to provide mobile WiFi hotspots.

Libraries that are closed may still offer curbside pickup and phone-based technical support to help students and parents deal with issues such as tethering a laptop to a phone or connecting it to a WiFi hotspot.

In San Antonio, Texas, the country's first all-digital public library system—BiblioTech—not only loans tablets and WiFi hotspots to students, but also offers assistance in setting up Zoom meetings with teachers.

"Because our branches are located in challenged areas, we knew that closing, even temporarily, would be a strain on patrons who rely on our library for computers and internet service and electronic resources," says BiblioTech director Laura Cole.

Schools and libraries are eligible for funding from the FCC's eRate program, which provides discounts and subsidies of up to 90 percent to offset the cost of high-speed broadband, WiFi, and other services. Advocates are pushing Congress to pass legislation that would provide additional funding, now that many libraries are facing budget cuts due to the pandemic.

Lifeline Programs

The FCC's Lifeline program provides low-income families with a monthly discount of up to $9.25 on a phone or broadband service.

While this can help make services like those more affordable, broadband advocates argue that the sum is woefully insufficient, especially since it applies to either your phone or internet bill, but not both. Worse yet, the benefit is assigned per household, not per person.

"Our American Experiences Survey from earlier this year showed that it costs an average of $66 a month for broadband internet service," says CR's Schwantes. "What's needed now to help the most vulnerable consumers is a much larger and realistic benefit of $50 a month to help cover the cost of a broadband connection."

To qualify for the Lifeline program, you must participate in certain federal assistance programs—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, National School Lunch, or Medicaid—or have an income that falls at or below 135 percent of federal poverty guidelines. To see if you’re eligible, consult lifelinesupport.org.

There are three ways to apply:

1) via an online eligibility form

2) via a printed application (in English or Spanish) mailed, with proof of eligibility, to Lifeline Support Center, P.O. Box 7081, London, KY 40742

3) by contacting your local phone or internet company to see if it offers a Lifeline program.

If you qualify, you will have 90 days to select a participating phone or internet company and sign up for service. You can also ask for the Lifeline benefit to be applied to your current service.

Internet Providers

Many internet service providers offer their own assistance programs, so it's worth reaching out to those in your area to review your options. Once again, you may need to participate in a government assistance program or meet certain income requirements.

Some ISPs also limit eligibility to new customers or those with no outstanding balance at a previous provider.

Here's a list of potential options arranged alphabetically:

Altice: The company, which runs the Optimum and Suddenlink internet services, has a program, called Altice Advantage Internet, which offers 30Mbps service for $15 a month to eligible customers, though it charges a discounted fee for installation.

AT&T: Eligible customers can get low-cost Access internet service for $10 a month; in some cases, the speeds max at 10Mbps, but many people can get a free upgrade to 25Mbps. The plan comes with a modem and access to WiFi hotspots, and AT&T is waiving overage fees through the end of September.

Charter: The Spectrum Internet Assist program offers speeds up to 30 Mbps, a free modem, and no data caps for $15 a month, but you have to pay an extra $5 a month to get the WiFi service.

Comcast: The Internet Essentials program provides internet speeds of 25 Mbps, plus WiFi, for $10 a month. Once you are an Internet Essentials customer, you have the option to purchase a laptop or desktop computer at a discounted price.

Cox: If you sign up by the end of September, Cox's Connect2Compete program gives you two free months of service, plus free remote desktop and phone support through Cox Complete Care, before a $10 a month charge kicks in. It also offers learn-at-home school toolkits, in English and Spanish, to help families connect to the internet.

Verizon: The company has extended a program through the end of the year that grants new customers who qualify for Lifeline a $20 per month discount on home internet service, lowering the cost of 200Mbps service to $20 a month. Verizon will also waive the router rental charge for the first 60 days. After that, it's $15 a month. 

If your local provider isn't listed above, call the office or visit the website to see if it has a low-cost offer, too. 

In addition to Lifeline, many ISPs are eligible for the FCC's Connect America Fund (CAF), created to expand broadband into rural areas. The FCC has a map that shows all the spots where service providers will be receiving CAF support over the six–year program.

Nonprofits and Other Resources

Nonprofits and state broadband offices are also good resources for those looking for low-cost computers, WiFi hotspots, and affordable internet plans. 

PCs for People recycles and refurbishes old computers, typically from businesses, then gives or sells them to lower-income families. The group offers low-cost ($10 to $15 a month) prepaid high-speed 4G LTE internet service to those with an income under 200 percent of the federal poverty line or those enrolled in income-based assistance programs. 

Human I-T, a Southern California-based nonprofit, has a similar program, repairing and repurposing older electronics for low-income families. It, too, offers affordable internet plans from providers such as Frontier Communications and Charter/Spectrum.

A third option, EveryoneOn, supplies digital skills training, too. It's also the force behind the ConnectHomeUSA program, which helps those living in HUD-assisted housing get connected.

You should also check out the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which advocates for better access to broadband. On its website, you'll find updated listings for low-cost internet providers, as well as news on broadband initiatives, policy proposals, and the latest developments in state and federal legislation. 

All 50 states now have some group—a broadband authority, commission, or task force—that deals with access issues, says Peggy Schaffer, executive director at the broadband authority ConnectMaine. These offices are often charged with administering and distributing grants to local communities for improved broadband access and some have maps that show current and future expansion plans.

To find the broadband office that applies to you, consult the official website for your state goverment or the National Conference of State Legislators website, which maintains a comprehensive directory of every state broadband task force, commission, and authority.