If you asked me in January what one of my most important jobs would be if we went through a global pandemic, I’m not sure I would have said “helping families get digital connectivity”. But a few weeks ago, as my colleagues at the Partnership for LA Schools and I were discussing how we could best be of service to our students and families, that was immediately my answer.
In some ways my role hasn’t changed much as we’ve shifted learning to homes instead of classrooms. My days look different for sure, but the work I do has been — and will always be — about supporting parents and helping them discover their own capacity and leadership to advocate for what’s right for their children. And from these parents I’ve gotten a clear message lately: the maze of trying to get high-speed internet access at home is more confusing than their child’s math homework. And that’s saying something. After hearing from many parents about just how difficult it was to access “free trials” promised by internet and wireless companies, our team at the Partnership decided to do some digging. Here’s what we heard from service representatives when we tried to sign up for free trials:
“It’s our policy to ask for your social security number.”
“That will require a $99 deposit.”
“We don’t provide service to your area.”
We made more than 50 calls to Internet Service Providers Comcast, AT&T, Charter/ Spectrum, T-Mobile, and Verizon — all of which have advertised offers to close the digital divide by helping students and families get connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked the very questions our parents have been asking – and got the same discouraging and burdensome responses. The list of barriers is long: requirements for deposits and social security numbers, call center representatives without knowledge of the services offered for students, and wait times up to two hours in some cases for Spanish-speaking representatives.
Several of these same companies participated in Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s Digital Divide Task Force to outline what they’re doing to ensure California’s millions of students can access digital learning at home during COVID-19 Shelter in Place orders. Yet despite assurances that no barriers to access exist, the roadblocks showed up time and time again when my team and the parents in our communities have called internet service provider companies.
Many of the programs offered seem to be extensions of existing, low-income access efforts that provide service for a lower-than-usual cost, usually around $10-$15 a month for speeds that are often insufficient for online learning. Others are offering programs for $49.99 per month. And at a time when over half of Los Angeles County is suddenly unemployed, $50 per month is out of reach. And even $10 or $15 can mean choosing between internet access or food.
Last year both Comcast and AT&T each reported over $13 billion in net income. Charter/Spectrum earned $1.7 billion. It would seem they could afford to at least temporarily waive fees for low- or no-income families to get WiFi at home. Many companies are taking unprecedented steps to help consumers, given that we’re in an unprecedented crisis. It would seem that internet service providers could move beyond existing programs and instead take new steps to ramp up support for students and families in underserved communities. After all, we’re all in this together, right?