Connectivity Essentials: Low-Cost Residential Broadband Solutions
Connecting the 9.7 million students who currently lack the Internet needed to continue learning during the coronavirus pandemic requires multi-pronged approaches. While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the homework gap, factors such as the needs of students, staffing capacity at the district, and locale, play an important role in selecting the right connectivity solution.
This page outlines the important steps to think about when researching options and includes case studies on how other school districts deployed low-cost residential broadband solutions.
WHAT IS LOW-COST RESIDENTIAL BROADBAND?
Residential Broadband refers to the Internet connections delivered to homes over a physical wire or cable. It includes:
- DSL: Digital Subscriber Lines that typically operate over existing copper telephone lines.
- Cable modems: Broadband delivered over existing coaxial TV cables.
- Fiber: Internet transmitted over transparent glass fibers, often at a much faster speed than DSL or cable modems.
Low-cost Residential Broadband refers to a specific program offered by the provider to increase equitable access to the Internet. Most often, these programs are part of Lifeline – a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program that provides discounts on Internet services for qualifying low-income consumers to expand equitable access to broadband.
For most service providers, low-cost residential broadband options include DSL or cable modem offerings. The Internet enters the location through a router and/or modem, and individual devices connect via Wi-Fi. Most plans offer speeds between 5-25 Megabits per second (Mbps), which allows students to complete activities such as:
- Basic web browsing
- Send and receive email
- Stream music and videos
- Participate in live video calls
- Download, complete, and upload online assignments
RESEARCH PROVIDER OPTIONS
National and local providers across the country are offering COVID-19 specific options for families with students that need to access the Internet to complete schoolwork. Be sure to check in with your local providers for special offers, or take a look at a few national offerings, such as:
View all of the national options in our shareable low-cost residential broadband provider cheat sheet.
This program provides two months of free service ($9.95 per month after that) and includes access to their network of Xfinity Hotspots. Comcast has also worked with school districts on sponsored service agreements to cover the monthly cost to connect their students.
To make it easy to find the best low-cost options available in your area, we created a simple lookup tool. Enter your zip code and discover the best options in your area to get started.
KEY CONSIDERATIONS FOR EVALUATING SOLUTIONS
Since service providers determine who is eligible for the COVID-19 specific offers, make sure to look at the fine print. While many requirements are the same or similar to the Lifeline requirements, some providers have loosened eligibility to include anyone participating in the National School Lunch Program or all students. Download our cheat sheet to see the detailed eligibility requirements.
Most of the offers from service providers are for new customers only. This is especially important because any family that had previously been serviced by that provider and had to cancel may not be eligible for the new offer. Be sure to offer several alternatives to families if that is the case for families in your school district.
If it doesn’t look like a provider offers a solution that suits families in your school district, ask anyway. Local providers may not explicitly publicize offers but are often more than happy to support their local community during a time of need.
PROS AND CONS OF LOW-COST RESIDENTIAL BROADBAND SOLUTIONS
Existing residential broadband solutions, such as cable and DSL, currently serve the vast majority of homes with school-aged children. Based on S&P Global Market Intelligence and EducationSuperHighway analysis, these technologies could potentially serve 7.1 million of the total 9.2 million unconnected students - that’s 77% of students in need. In most cases, the only additional equipment needed to activate service is a self-install kit that can be mailed to the customer.
As noted in the provider cheat sheet, the cost of wireline service from many national providers is about $10.00 per month. This cost is low enough that some school districts are covering the cost of service for families. On a national level, our analysis shows that 77% of students without broadband currently could be connected by wireline providers (from now to the end of the 2020-21 school year for a cost of $785 million.
In April of 2020, residential broadband providers have partnered directly with school districts to serve students. This type of agreement typically plays out by the school district figuring out the families that lack Internet and working with the provider to determine eligibility and start service. School districts also handle the payment of bills to ensure service remains continuous for students. Public school districts in Portland (OR) and San Francisco have partnered with Comcast to provide sponsored service, and Comcast is working with Albuquerque public schools on a similar program.
Reports about the complexity of signing up for service have varied. A recent study in Los Angeles Unified School District found that most providers required customers to provide either a social security number or a large deposit in order to start service. This requirement caused discomfort among many families and resulted in very few families signing up for service. For families where English is not the primary language and bilingual customer service representatives are unavailable, the ability to work through the application process is even more difficult.
Other eligibility requirements, such as proof of income or proof of participation in other government programs, require time to pull together. Sponsored service agreements where the school district acts as a middle-man for families can ease this process. Long wait times to speak with a customer service representative, or automatic waitlists, can also prevent families from signing up.
Interactive maps exist that allow a user to determine which service providers are able to service a location. Unfortunately, these tools mostly use zip codes, census tracts, or census blocks as the search area criteria. In order to determine if service is available at a specific location, enabling address-level search is a necessity.
The fine print in contracts can include, in some cases, early termination fees and/or rental equipment fees. Terms and conditions for some providers also state that program participation also may be terminated if the eligible service is upgraded, altered, or changed by the recipient for any reason (ex: Comcast). Finally, if public assistance eligibility changes, the provider might have the right to terminate the customer from the program.
Be sure to read the terms and conditions carefully and clearly explain the rules of the program to potential participants.
SCHOOL DISTRICT SPOTLIGHT
Despite potential concerns, school districts have begun to leverage low-cost residential broadband to successfully connect thousands of students to broadband so they can continue learning from home.
Atlanta Public Schools
APS partnered with Comcast on a sponsored service agreement to connect families needing Internet. They received approval from their school board to allocate funding toward connecting students at home to Internet and devices and began a fundraising campaign to cover additional costs. They raised enough money to not only cover the cost of service for families for up to 12 months but also build in the flexibility to cover some of the cost of previously unpaid bills so that service can begin immediately.
Although the project has run relatively smoothly, APS has encountered challenges contacting parental guardians due to out-of-date contact information. They also anticipate additional challenges next school year as many students move over the summer vacation.
They have piloted this project with 1,000 students and hope to expand it to other students in the school district.
Ready to get started? Follow our how-to guide with seven steps school district administrators can take to connect students during COVID-19.