Across the country, schools have shifted to distance learning after the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in widespread school closures and stay-at-home orders. But many students still can’t get online to learn. A recent survey of Los Angeles Schools found that 16 percent of students don’t have access to broadband and that 15 percent had not yet spoken with teachers.
To connect students on the wrong side of the digital divide, school districts in a number of cities, including Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, California, are working with Comcast to sponsor the cost of the company’s Internet Essentials program for low-income families in need of home broadband connections during the crisis.
In a press release, Guadalupe Guerrero, Superintendent of Portland Public Schools, said of the program:
As we transition from a traditional brick and mortar school experience to one that takes place online, it is more important than ever that we make every effort to remain connected to our students who rely on us for not only academics, but also essential needs and social and emotional supports. . . This partnership will allow us to stay connected to our students who need us most.
Schools Sponsor Student Service
To help ensure all students can access online education while schools are closed, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and Portland Public Schools (PPS) plan to pay the monthly cost of Comcast’s Internet Essentials plan for eligible households. The school systems will distribute promotional codes to families who can then contact the company to sign up for broadband access at no cost.
Internet Essentials is Comcast’s affordable broadband plan for low-income households that qualify for a variety of public assistance programs. The program currently offers speeds of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. In response to the current public health crisis, the company is offering all new Internet Essentials subscribers two months of free access. After two months, the monthly fee is $9.95, which SFUSD and PPS will cover for participating families. Households will not have to continue service after the crisis or pay for unreturned equipment. “We're not looking to put an added burden on families through this,” explained Melissa Dodd, Chief Technology Officer for SFUSD, at a recent Board of Education meeting.
The duration of the assistance varies. SFUSD’s contract with Comcast [pdf], which the Board of Education approved on April 14 and is available to view below, establishes an initial term of up to one year. The district has budgeted $1 million from general funds for the initiative. In Portland, the Fund for PPS, a nonprofit established to coordinate donations for the public school system, has enough initial funding to pay for 4 months of Internet Essentials (in addition to the two free months from Comcast) for 2,000 households. “Thanks to an early infusion of private donations, we were excited to commit free Internet connectivity to many of our students and families in need,” Jonathan Garcia, President of the Fund for PPS, shared in a press release. The organization continues to accept donations for the program.
In both cities, the sponsorship program with Comcast is just one of the efforts the school districts are taking to connect students and their families. “We're learning everyday how complex this broadband access is, and we'll need multiple strategies to address the gaps,” said San Francisco Commissioner Jenny Lam at the April 14 Board of Education meeting. In addition to the Internet Essentials program, SFUSD is publicizing other free and low-cost connection options and distributing Wi-Fi hotspots. PPS, which estimates that more than 3,000 students need broadband access, is also providing hotspots for families with volatile housing situations.
Both SFUSD and PPS are reaching out to families that may be eligible for sponsored Internet Essentials connections. Portland families can request a promotional code online.
The Portland Community College Foundation is also offering free connections to up to 300 students. Comcast is working with other school districts, including Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico, on similar sponsorship programs.
Temporary Fix Reveals Double Standard
It’s commendable that the school districts have worked with Comcast to find a solution to rapidly meet the urgent needs of their most vulnerable students. “It is great to see such quick responses from providers to this long term problem of unequal access to the Internet,” said Mike McCarthy, a friend of MuniNetworks.org who manages San Francisco’s Community Broadband Network, a 10 year old network that provides access to over 2,000 households.
Comcast’s cable network already reaches many homes in San Francisco and Portland, so most participating families would be able to plug in and learn without delay. And unlike some other Covid-19 programs, the Internet Essentials sponsorships don’t automatically transition families to paid service after the crisis offer ends, and they are open to households with prior debt.
Even before the pandemic underscored the importance of connectivity, some municipal networks had already taken action to connect students to home broadband. For example, last year, the local school district in Cedar Falls, Iowa, partnered with the city’s municipal broadband network to provide $5 per month broadband plans to families that qualify for free or reduced price school lunches.
We are supportive of these sponsorship programs and Comcast’s willingness to work with the school districts. However, we want to remind readers that these same solutions would probably be called unfair cross-subsidies if municipal networks like Cedar Falls Utilities proposed them. “It is okay for Comcast to take public subsidies, but not local governments,” said Community Broadband Networks Director Christopher Mitchell. Tennessee and Louisiana even have laws that limit how low municipal broadband networks can price their service, preventing them from implementing creative solutions like this.
To close the homework gap after the Covid-19 crisis ends, cities will need a more comprehensive focus on broadband expansion and competition. McCarthy explained:
It will be important that this newfound national focus on Internet access doesn’t stop with the deployment of hotspots or expanding the customer base for traditional providers. The best solution to ensuring access for all is to increase competition and expand markets by supporting new deployment models of Internet access, [including] models that allow municipal entities to support new ISPs in their communities by sharing access to infrastructure.
Students' need for at-home connectivity won’t end with the pandemic, and cities should start planning for that future now. Any arguments about the need for universal, in-home, high-quality Internet access are settled.