Another Texas school year is about to start, but this one will look a little different with COVID-19 concerns spurring many school districts to begin the year virtually before transitioning to in-person classes.
Across the state, parents, teachers and schools are concerned with how to provide remote instruction to students who may not have internet access at home. The abrupt shift schools made to online instruction in March underscored the challenges of the digital divide. At that time, cable companies immediately enhanced their existing programs designed to connect low-income families.
Since then, cable providers serving Texas have continued to work with schools, education officials and others to increase internet access so all students have the opportunity to learn.
When much of our lives were forced online in March following stay-at-home orders, Texas Cable Association member companies – Altice USA (which provides Suddenlink services), Charter Spectrum, Comcast and Sparklight – quickly signed the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge. Those signing the pledge promised that for 60 days they would: not cut off broadband or telephone service to any customers, even those unable to pay their bills; waive late fees incurred because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and open their Wi-Fi hotspots to all. The FCC later extended the pledge through the end of June, and it was honored by all TCA members.
TCA cable members also took a number of additional steps, including expanding existing low-income internet programs, pausing data caps and other actions.
With the new school year almost underway, here’s what TCA member companies are now doing to increase broadband access:
- Providing qualifying households the opportunity to purchase Altice Advantage, which provides low-cost, 30 MBPS residential Suddenlink internet service for student households that are currently without broadband access and that qualify for the National School Lunch program. The program allows discounted purchase of a laptop and $14.99/month internet with a discounted $20 installation fee, free equipment and no contracts. Through Sept. 30, any unpaid balances on former Suddenlink accounts will be deferred to allow households formerly ineligible to sign up.
- Partnering with schools, government and nonprofit organizations on opportunities to purchase in-home connectivity for students as they continue to distance learn.
- Supporting the communities it serves through monetary and equipment donations to schools, a $10 million Small Business Recovery Program, and providing financial support of both the national and local affiliates of Feeding America and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
- Launching a new program, Stay Connected K-12, to help address the lack of internet connectivity faced by some student households. Through the program, the Spectrum Enterprise team will work directly with school districts across Charter’s footprint to assist them in offering high-speed, cable broadband internet access to students, educators and staff in their homes. Stay Connected K-12 will provide:
- Internet download speeds up to 50 Mbps
- Unlimited internet usage with no data caps or speed throttling
- Cable modem, Wi-Fi and self-installation kit at no cost
- Wireline connectivity with over 99.9% network reliability
- 24/7/365 technical support
- Promoting Spectrum Internet Assist, a program which provides reliable, high-speed internet access at an affordable price for low-income households that qualify. Program participants receive discounted 30 Mbps high-speed internet, along with Security Suite and an internet modem, at no additional charge. The program requires no contracts and has no data caps or hidden fees.
- Announcing it intends to apply to participate in the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund auction. If successful in the auction, the result could be an expedited, multi-billion-dollar build-out of Charter’s broadband network that would reach millions of families and communities still unserved by high-speed broadband.
- Extending its offer of 60 days of free internet service to eligible new customers of Internet Essentials through the end of 2020. Internet Essentials is the company’s program that provides in-home internet, the opportunity to purchase a low-cost computer and digital literacy training to help families and other low-income households stay connected. Comcast also will waive the requirement for customers to be clear of past-due balances on their account in order to allow them to qualify. Since the Internet Essentials initiative began in 2011, it has connected more than two million low-income families to the internet, including 396,000 in the Houston region, and provided more than 100,000 computers at a discount.
- Providing free access to its public Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots through the end of 2020.
- Partnering with schools, healthcare providers and other community-based organizations to allow them to sponsor/pay for Internet Essentials service for their eligible members/families at a cost of $9.95 + tax per month, per household. The minimum requirements to establish a sponsored service agreement are at least a six-month sponsorship for at least 25 eligible applicants who are new to the program.
- Comcast Houston Region is teaming with Lone Star College-Houston North to provide free internet access to students and families during pandemic. Through its Internet Essentials program, Comcast will provide free internet access to approximately 200 LSC-Houston North students and families in need. The new agreement will ensure these students can continue their education through the school’s distance learning offerings as many in-person options are on hiatus.
- Extending its Xfinity program first offered in March to help college students stay connected by providing $150 Visa prepaid card to students who sign up for service. The prepaid card is more than enough to pay for two months of internet service. Students need to sign up by Sept. 30.
- Extending through the end of the year many of its relief measures designed to support customers and communities in need during the COVID-19 pandemic, including making available its 15 Mbps residential internet plan for $10 per month for the first three months of service to help low income families and those most impacted from coronavirus challenges, such as seniors and college students.
- Providing free access to its public Wi-Fi hotspots across its footprint through the end of 2020.
- Permanently boosting the majority of the company’s residential internet data plans by an additional 50 to 300 GB for free (based on plan) as of July 1.
- In July donated Chromebooks to students at Frontier Elementary in Angleton, Texas, and at six schools in other states as part of its initiative to improve student access to technology in Title I schools. Over the past seven years, Sparklight has donated more than 1,500 Chromebooks to Title 1 schools in the markets it serves in 21 states.
“Many of our students have limited access to computers at home, and this Chromebook donation will allow them more opportunities to study at home and grant them access to resources beyond our immediate community,” Allison Hemphill, education foundation and alternative funding director for Frontier Elementary School, said in a Sparklight press release.
- Sparklight and other members of the Cable ONE family also have supported Texas schools with other back to school donations, including $7,000 to Texas K-12 schools to assist with needed back-to-school supplies for students and teachers. Among the Texas projects that will be supported by the fund are:
- In Texarkana, a “Stuff the Bus” campaign, a community effort that allows students in low-income families the opportunity to receive backpacks filled with school supplies. This effort benefits students throughout Bowie County.
- Sparklight’s Sherman system is sponsoring a new teacher luncheon, which includes gift bags and gift cards for the district’s 137 new teachers.
- A donation to the Mission Carthage Back to School Bash, which this year will provide school supplies to students in need with a “drive-thru” event.
- Other donations for the purchase of school supplies in the Panhandle, LaGrange and El Campo.
Other state and federal initiatives to help close the digital divide for students include:
- In mid-July, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson, Vice Chair Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, and House Appropriations Committee Chair Giovanni Capriglione and Vice Chair Oscar Longoria announced Operation Connectivity, through which the State of Texas will allocate $200 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) for the purchase of eLearning devices and home internet solutions to enable remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic for Texas students that lack connectivity. The TEA will use the funding to purchase and distribute devices, hotspots, routers, and more based on specific needs identified by local education agencies, according to the press release.
- Gov. Abbott on July 22 announced that the state will allocate an additional $118 million in federal funding to support higher education in Texas, including $10 million to improve the quality of online learning by strengthening distance education course offerings and bolstering institutions’ capabilities to use data to support student success.
- FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the FCC will be initiating the first phase of the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund on Oct. 29. The $20 billion program will target homes and businesses that do not have access to sufficient broadband.
Cable companies have long been the nation’s leading broadband providers with about two-thirds of all high-speed internet customers. But they’ve seen a marked increase in broadband subscribers in 2020 as a result of their actions to increase broadband access and also due to the realization during the pandemic that cable’s internet speeds are necessary for school, work and entertainment:
- Altice USA added 70,000 broadband customers in the second quarter, more than five times the 13,000 it added in the prior year. Including complimentary Altice Advantage Internet customer net additions, residential broadband customers rose by 79,000 in the quarter. That growth fell to 53,000 additions when adjusted for customers receiving broadband via programs like the FCC Keep America Connected Pledge and a New Jersey order prohibiting companies from disconnecting broadband service for non-payment. But even with the lower number, Altice had its best broadband quarter ever.
- Cable One, which provides Sparklight services in Texas, added 145,000 residential broadband subscribers and 15,000 business customers in the second quarter.
- Charter added about 825,000 residential and business broadband subscribers in the second quarter, but added that about 600,000 residences and 100,000 businesses applied for service through the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge. Charter’s free 60-day internet offer for new customers with students or educators in the home added 329,000 customers in the second quarter of this year. At its peak, 208,000 residences and 14,000 businesses would have been disconnected for non-payment if not for the FCC program, according to Charter.
- Comcast added 323,000 broadband subscribers in the second quarter – its best second quarter in 13 years – and 800,000 in the past six months, not counting 600,000 customers who are on a free promotion for low-income individuals or who have halted payments because of financial difficulties stemming from the pandemic and its economic fallout.
“Now more than ever, connectivity has become a vital tool for families to access educational resources for students, important news and information about their community and the world, telehealth applications, or to stay in touch with family and friends,” said Dana Strong, president of Xfinity Consumer Services.