National News

Internet accessibility a challenge during pandemic

By Nisa Islam Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Mar 25, 2020 - 2:47:12 PM

What's your opinion on this article?

As students around the country adjust to online learning and companies require employees to telework to halt the spread of the Coronavirus (COVID-19), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced March 17, changes to their Lifeline program.

The changes waive the Lifeline program’s recertification and reverification requirements for participating low-income consumers for 60 days. The program serves 12.3 million subscribers on Medicaid, food stamps or other benefits with $9.25-a-month internet service.

“As Americans across the country turn to online services to enable social distancing measures, the importance of access to affordable communications, especially for low-income households, has only increased,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

“During times of crisis, maintaining connections to family and friends, medical professionals and educators, and your coworkers is imperative, and I don’t want any American consumers experiencing hardships because of the pandemic to lose connectivity. That’s why I recently announced the Keep Americans Connected Pledge to address the challenges that many Americans, particularly low-income Americans, will face in the coming months,” he added.

The Coronavirus scare has also prompted several internet providers to offer free service. Comcast will offer two free months of internet service for all qualified low-income households in their service area who sign up for the Internet Essentials program that is normally available for $9.95/ month.

The company is also increasing the speed of the program to 25 Mbps downloads, and 3 Mbps uploads for all new and existing customers.

After the first two free months expire, customers can either cancel the service (which they can do at any time) or keep it as a regular paying Internet Essentials customer.

Charter Communications will offer free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi access for 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students who do not already have a Spectrum broadband subscription and at any service level up to 100 Mbps.

These services should boost the ability of students and workers to access the world wide web.

A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that only 63 percent of rural America have a broadband internet connection at home. Rural Americans are now 12 percentage points less likely than Americans overall to have home broadband.

This is not just a rural problem. “There are 12 million students in this country who fall into the homework gap and lack the regular broadband access they need to just do nightly schoolwork. From my perspective, this is the cruelest part of the digital divide, and it’s a divide we’re going to have to address, and a gap we’re going to have to fix,” explained Jessica Rosenworcel, FCC commissioner in the 2019 Common Sense Media report The Homework Gap.

The report explains that to get homework done in the evenings, students, who most likely come from Black, Latino, and Native American families, need to find ways to connect: They use the library or store Wi-Fi (for free or with purchase) or they miss assignments.

Teachers in Title 1 schools (meaning a large concentration of low-income students) or in schools with more than three-quarters of students being students of color are more likely to say that over 60 percent of their students do not have home access to the internet or a computer.

Cost is a leading concern for many parents seeking access to the internet. Monthly subscriptions to internet services are expensive for some families as well as the many phones, tablets, laptops and desktops that are offered. The FCC’s Lifeline program is designed to help low income families, but many are not qualified if they are not receiving Medicaid, food stamps or other benefits. With companies being forced to close during the COVID-19 outbreak which is leading to massive layoffs, millions of Americans, particularly the poor—already living paycheck to paycheck— will present even more challenges. If a person is no longer getting paid because their employer is closed due to Coronavirus concerns, how will they pay bills, even one as nominal as $9.95 per month?

Lifeline provides subscribers a discount on monthly telephone service, broadband internet access service, or voice-broadband bundled service purchased from participating providers.

Internet access is just the beginning of the problem. The Pew Research found that rural adults are also less likely than suburban adults to have multiple devices or services that enable them to go online: About three-in-ten adults who live in rural communities (31 percent) report that they own a desktop or laptop computer, a smartphone, a home broadband connection and a tablet computer. By contrast, 43 percent of suburban adults own all four of these technologies.

A 2014 Pew Research Study found that 87 percent of Whites and 80 percent of Blacks are internet users, and 74 percent of Whites and 62 percent of Blacks have some sort of internet connection at home.

Their research found that young, college-educated, and higher-income Blacks are just as likely as their White counterparts to use the internet and have service at home. Some 86 percent of Blacks ages 18-29 have home internet, as are 88 percent of Black college graduates and 91 percent of Blacks with an annual household income of $75,000 or more per year.

These numbers are all well above the national average for home internet, and are identical to Whites of similar ages, incomes, and education levels. But challenges can happen.

“I’m being sent home to do classes online, but my laptop was stolen,” Khadijah Richardson, a sophomore at the University of Maryland told The Final Call. “I’ll have to go to the library every day for class. I don’t have a computer at home. This will complicate my life. I will just have to live at the library. That’s not how I want to live at home, but I don’t have any choice. My parents can’t afford to buy me a new laptop,” she said.

“That’s one problem. How do I learn organic chemistry online? How do I do my lab online? I’m so frustrated by this whole situation. It’s totally disrupted my learning. I don’t want to get behind. My classes are difficult. I need to be in a classroom with my professor. I need to be able to ask questions and see what’s going on in the lab. This online learning will be a hurdle for me.”