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Millions of Students Got Free Home Internet for Remote Learning. How Long Will It Last?

By Benjamin Herold — March 10, 2021 10 min read
Cupped hands hold a precious wi-fi symbol
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After COVID-19 forced the nation’s schools online, thousands of districts scrambled to partner with internet service providers to cover the cost of broadband for low-income students. The result was a patchwork of temporary agreements that connected millions of families, often via innovative public-private partnerships.

Now, though, many of those deals face looming expiration dates—with no clear answers about whether long-term funding will be available.

“There is a very good chance we’re going to see some people getting cut off,” said Evan Marwell, the founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a broadband advocacy group.

There’s mutual interest in solidifying many of the “sponsored service” agreements currently in place, Marwell said. Typically, such deals involve an internet service provider (ISP) offering discounted wireline internet connections or mobile hotspots to low-income families, with the local school district picking up the tab. The agreements have allowed schools to reach students for whom online learning would otherwise have been impossible, and EducationSuperHighway estimates that broadband providers have connected 3 million new K-12 students in the past eight months, more than all the new customers they added in 2019.

The problem, however, is money.

Funding typically comes from a combination of local philanthropists, city and state government, and the federal CARES Act, passed to provide coronavirus relief last March. Many of the resulting programs were budgeted for somewhere between three months and the end of the 2020-21 school year. It’s unclear how many of those agreements have already been cut off. What is certain is that ISPs won’t give families bandwidth for free after the external money runs out.

“We have a fiduciary responsibility to our shareholders,” said Comcast spokesman Charlie Douglas, who noted that his company is currently part of hundreds of K-12 agreements. “No single company can fix this with a flip of the switch.”

As a result, districts are scrambling to figure out what happens next.

The same is true for states that have struck deals with ISPs, and for local communities that have forged their own solutions, such as municipal-owned broadband networks. All say outside help is needed.

There is a very good chance we’re going to see some people getting cut off.

The most likely savior is the federal government. A newly established Emergency Broadband Benefit provides the Federal Communications Commission with $3.2 billion to help pay for internet service for low-income households, which should make a big difference in the short term.

But even before that emergency benefit was formalized, many broadband advocates were pushing for it to be made permanent. K-12 leaders, civil-rights groups, and a bipartisan coalition of state attorneys general are also calling to expand the federal E-Rate program, which currently subsidizes the cost of telecommunications services at schools and libraries, but not in families’ homes.

Until stable funding is in place, many families will be vulnerable to a familiar squeeze, said Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. High-speed home internet is now essential to everyday life, but ISPs have yet to find the business case for providing unsubsidized service to an estimated 7 to 12 million students who remain disconnected.

“This is a market failure,” Siefer said. “We need federal solutions, so we can come up with a long-term plan for all households.”

Following is a look at the status of three key types of agreements the K-12 sector has struck with ISPs.

1. School districts dealing directly with internet service providers

The gold standard for district-ISP agreements is the $50 million Chicago Connected initiative, which the city school system described in December as “the foundation for a permanent publicly supported system” of free-high-speed internet for families living in poverty. So far, Connected Chicago has covered the costs of high-speed internet service from Comcast and RCN Corporation for more than 58,000 students.

Three things stand out about the deal.

First, it extends for four years, far longer than most comparable agreements.

Connected Chicago also includes funding for a robust outreach effort, with the city’s community-based organizations already contacting eligible families more than 220,000 times to answer questions, help with sign-up, and offer other services such as housing and food. Digital literacy initiatives will soon be added.

It’s a success story on the power of public-private partnerships.

In addition, local philanthropists—including hedge-fund titan Ken Griffin, who contributed $7.5 million, and Barack and Michelle Obama, who joined the John T. and Catharine D. MacArthur Foundation in pledging $750,000—have covered the costs of the program’s first two years.

“It’s a success story on the power of public-private partnerships,” said Daniel Anello, the CEO of Kids First Chicago, a nonprofit parent-advocacy group that helped spur the effort with an April 2020 report that found roughly 1 in 5 Chicago children lacked home broadband access.

Still, there are concerns.

Kids First Chicago and others spent months pushing Comcast to improve its Internet Essentials offering, which typically charged $9.95 per month for 25 megabit-per-second download and 3mbps upload speeds. That service was not fast enough to support multiple videoconferencing sessions at once, many families found.

The cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools are also on the hook for $25 million to cover the costs of the program in its third and fourth years.

And most importantly, hundreds of other communities in smaller markets lack the bargaining power, deep-pocketed civic elites, and industry competition present in Chicago.

In Worcester, Mass., for example, the city and school district spent months begging for help from Charter Communications—the only internet service provider available to almost all local households, 18 percent of whom are stuck with no internet access at all, the Worcester Regional Research Bureau found. The low point came last July, when the mayor, city manager, and school superintendent made public a letter they’d sent to the giant telecom.

“Our students should not be penalized for having the misfortune of living in a city served by your company,” they wrote.

In December, an agreement was finally struck—for service that costs $29.99 per month, in a deal that can apparently be terminated by the company with 60 days’ notice. (“I would like to thank City Manager Augusts and Mayor Petty for their cooperation and collaborative efforts,” a Charter spokeswoman said in a January statement.)

Siefer of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance said such struggles highlight the need for new thinking on how to get reliable high-speed internet to America’s hardest-to-reach families.

“The ISPs have been in charge for decades,” she said. “What we’re seeing right now is a recognition that has not been successful.”

2. States step up, but face funding deadlines of their own

Some states agencies have tried to help.

In Washington, for example, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has so far covered the cost of discounted internet service for 32,000 families in 209 separate school systems across the state. The price tag to date: $4.5 million, all of which has come via the federal CARES Act.

OSPI has sent about 10 percent of that money directly to Comcast, Presidio, and Ziply Fiber, according to Dennis Small, the state’s educational technology director. The rest has gone to reimburse school districts across Washington that are paying those ISPs for service for low-income students.

Small believes the pandemic has cast a harsh spotlight on long-festering digital inequities that won’t easily be erased.

“We definitely see this as a long-term need,” he said.

The same is true in North Dakota, where the state’s Department of Public Instruction put up $500,000 in CARES Act funds and worked along with state information-technology officials and numerous ISPs to ensure home connectivity for mostly rural students.

We definitely see this as a long-term need.

Both states’ agreements expire at the end of this school year. Neither has long-term funding in place.

A new round of federal coronavirus-relief funds approved by Congress and former President Donald Trump in December could help. So could the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, which covers up to $50 per month of broadband service for eligible families (and more for those living on tribal lands.)

“It will help those who worry about choosing between paying a broadband bill and paying rent or buying groceries,” said acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement after the program was adopted last month.

But for now, at least, the emergency benefit will last only until the existing money runs out, or until six months after the federal government declares the end of the COVID-19 public health emergency, whichever comes first.

It amounts to buying more time, said Marwell of EducationSuperHighway.

“We’ll make it through the end of this school year, and there’s a decent chance we make it to the end of next school year,” he said. “But if we wait until then to deal with the underlying problem, we’re going to have issues.”

3. Local districts and communities get creative

Hanging on the wall of Michelle Bourgeois’ office in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains is a board with four questions:

Is it supportable? Is it sustainable? Is it scalable? Is it good for kids?

She believes the expanding broadband partnership between her school district and the City of Longmont, Colo., checks all four boxes.

“We’re not just building a short-term solution with CARES Act funding,” said Bourgeois, the chief technology officer for Colorado’s 33,000-student St. Vrain Valley Schools, north of Boulder. “I’m super excited.”

The main source of such optimism is Longmont Power & Communications, a nonprofit electric and internet-services utility that operates one of the country’s 330 or so municipally-owned broadband networks. NextLight, as the utility’s broadband service is known, offers some of the fastest internet speeds in the nation. The all-fiber network was built with $43 million in bond money, approved by voters in a 2011 ballot measure after a years-long fight to repeal Colorado’s industry-backed state law that excludes local governments from building or owning broadband infrastructure.

We’re not just building a short-term solution with CARES Act funding.

Roughly two-thirds of Longmont internet customers now choose NextLight over commercial providers such as Comcast and CenturyLink.

Even before COVID-19, Longmont Power & Communications was providing the service for free to several dozen Longmont families in need. After the pandemic hit, the utility added a discounted option that now offers 100mbps speeds for $14.95 per month. Both programs are open-ended, with no set expiration date.

Now, Longmont Power & Communications and the St. Vrain Valley Schools plan to go further. In February, they received a $1.3 million state grant to build a “mesh network” that officials hope will eventually provide free wireless service to as many as 6,200 St. Vrain Valley students, many of whom are either homeless (and thus can’t make use of wireline connections to a specific building) or live in apartment complexes or mobile-home communities where owners or managers refuse to bring NextLight fiber on to their premises.

Other communities are undertaking similar experiments.

In Pittsburgh, Pa., for example, a nonprofit called Meta Mesh Wireless Communities is working with local universities on a pilot program called Every1online. The group recently installed a wireless “super node” on top of the 535-foot tall Cathedral of Learning on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus; “repeater nodes” to amplify its signal atop water and radio towers in surrounding communities; and small receivers on the outsides of roughly 450 homes served by three area school districts.

The project is “one way to begin to see Internet access as a human right,” said Meta Mesh Wireless Communities Executive Director Adam Longwill in a November press release.

Such strategies are unlikely to supplant the private, for-profit internet service providers currently dominating the market. Even in the areas served by the St. Vrain Valley School District, NextLight doesn’t reach everyone; a local education foundation has covered the cost of Comcast Internet Essentials for about 70 area households, and the district obtained nearly 1,000 mobile hotspots, many from wireless carrier T-Mobile. Those efforts were recently extended for another six months.

Still, many advocates view public and nonprofit internet service providers as offering an additional layer of connectivity for vulnerable families that COVID-19 has proven America desperately needs.

“It’s important that everybody have equal and fair access to high-speed internet,” said Valerie Dodd, the director of Longmont Power & Communications. “Something has to change.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2021 edition of Education Week as Millions of Students Got Free Home Internet for Remote Learning. How Long Will It Last?


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