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posted: 6/27/2020 6:00 AM

Pandemic internet aid is ending, but digital divide remains

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  • Last week, Comcast announced it will be continuing its 60-day free internet offer through the end of the year.

    Last week, Comcast announced it will be continuing its 60-day free internet offer through the end of the year.
    (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

 
 

In March, Rakia Akter was confronted with a serious parenting problem. As the coronavirus pandemic grew worse, schools in Buffalo, New York, where she lives, were shutting down in-person classes and shifting entirely to online, distance learning. With her husband earning $30,000 a year working for FedEx while she stayed at home raising their children, money was tight. They couldn't afford to pay for home internet. How, she wondered, would their 9-year-old and 7-year-old daughters be able to keep up with their classmates?

Eventually, Akter heard that the cable giant Charter Communications was giving away free internet access to help families in need during the lockdown. Akter signed up and, for the moment, her family's remote-learning crisis was averted.

But then, last month, the 60-day free period ran out. Facing a monthly bill that would jump to $64, Akter reluctantly canceled the service. "People say, 'Internet is just $60 a month,' but we've had to cut so many corners just to have what we have," said Akter, who is 27 and has three kids. "That's food for a week for us."

Thousands of people in communities across the country are about to grapple with a similar dilemma. Earlier this year, to help students and teachers finish the disrupted school year online, Charter, Comcast, AT&T and others began providing free internet. They also pledged not to cut off service or charge late fees to customers struggling financially because of the pandemic.

Now, several of those programs are set to end in the coming weeks -- a looming expiration that, if left unaddressed, threatens to unravel a precarious thread of the social safety net at a particularly difficult time for many American families. Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a nonprofit focused on increasing internet adoption, said that although the school year is winding down, the need for access to the web -- and the challenge of affording it -- have not gone away.

The industry's charitable internet programs have been helpful, said Siefer, but ultimately amounted to a temporary "Band-Aid" on the still-gaping digital divide. "We had this problem pre-covid," Siefer said. "All covid did was draw attention to it because of online learning. We have to come up with a substantial, long-term solution."

"These students are already way behind because of the limited interactions we had with them."

Due to coronavirus safety concerns, many public libraries, an internet lifeline for low-income Americans, remain closed. About 21 million Americans are unemployed and have less income now to pay for online access to help with their job searches. Next month, a record number of New York City students will go to summer school online. Without internet at home, some students have been doing schoolwork during the pandemic in parking lots using the ambient Wi-Fi from surrounding buildings.

The scope of the problem is reflected in the number of people who have taken advantage of the industry's emergency measures during the pandemic.

Charter said it expects to provide free internet to more than 400,000 students, teachers and their families. A Comcast spokesman said the company signed up 32,000 families for a free version of its low-cost service, known as Internet Essentials, at the end of March, just a few weeks after the lockdowns began. An AT&T spokeswoman said more than 156,000 customers have received financial assistance to stay connected to the company's wireless, broadband and video services.

Last week, Comcast announced it will be continuing its 60-day free internet offer through the end of the year. AT&T plans to extend free unlimited wireless internet for students until late August if schools request it by June 21. Similar free-internet offers from Charter and Altice USA Inc., another cable provider, are set to expire June 30. Cox's program is ending on July 15.

On June 19, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai asked Congress for legislation to help consumers and small businesses keep their internet connections beyond June 30. Pai said he'd also asked companies to offer customers who are struggling financially due to the pandemic more flexible payment options, and to continue and expand their free-internet programs for students.

As the pandemic drags on, other longer-term efforts are being made to help people in need maintain access to the web. In Portland, Oregon, a nonprofit that supports the local school system is sponsoring free internet for up to six months for 2,000 families in partnership with Comcast. In Congress, House Democrats earmarked more than $5 billion in the next stimulus package to provide internet to students and teachers and give people who were laid off or furloughed a $50 monthly credit for access to the web. But the measure is currently stalled.

Charter spokeswoman Cameron Blanchard said the company is notifying customers in advance when the 60-day free period is about to expire and providing options for those who want a low-cost service. The company offers a $14.99-a-month service called Spectrum Internet Assist to low-income families. "As that free period ends, our goal is to work with our customers to find a plan that matches their needs and budget," Blanchard said.

At an investor conference last month, Charter Chief Financial Officer Chris Winfrey said that providing free internet to students and teachers was both a goodwill gesture and a business opportunity. "By doing good in the community and at the same time having a focus to acquire customers, then I think we're going to end up with a lot more customers than we would have otherwise," he said.

From the start, many of the industry's pandemic-related measures came with certain conditions attached, such as stipulating that only new customers could qualify. Initially, Charter and Altice USA barred students from signing up whose families had an outstanding balance. Both companies lifted the policy after facing criticism. Another issue, said Siefer, is that the offers for free internet for students and teachers weren't widely advertised. "There was definitely an awareness problem," she said. "A lot of folks didn't know they existed."

Back in Buffalo, just as Charter's 60-day free offer was starting to run out, Elmwood Village Charter Schools bought about 20 Wi-Fi hotspots for families, including Akter's, who couldn't afford to pay for internet access.

Even so, Liz Evans, the school's director of operations, worries about how some students will fare in summer school, which runs through early August and will require internet access. "These students are already way behind because of the limited interactions we had with them," she said. "If we aren't able to offer them summer school, they're going to be that much further behind at the start of next year."