What happens when the COVID-inspired free broadband expires?

The (Chicago) Daily Herald reports…

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.”

They outline the number of families taking advantage of the free programs…

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.

Several providers are extending the option…

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.

The generosity of the providers has been great, but it seems like we need a national policy to ensure consistency and predictability for customers and reduce the responsibility for providers. The debate about whether broadband is a utility has ended with the pandemic. As a nation, we can’t afford to have the cost of broadband be the reason kids can’t get to class, older folks can get to the doctor and people qualify for fewer jobs. Helping someone get broadband is like helping them get a fishing pole – it pays off in greater self-sufficiency.

This entry was posted in Digital Divide, Policy by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

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