Spectrum, Optimum relent, will offer internet deals to NYC families with debt

An internet service provider blocking New Yorkers with unpaid bills from a deal offered to K-12 students in the wake of coronavirus-related school closures is reversing course, after Chalkbeat uncovered the practice that was hampering the city’s remote learning efforts.

Spectrum will now allow families with old debts to sign up for its free 60-day service, according to the mayor’s office and a Manhattan councilwoman. Optimum had reversed a similar policy, Chalkbeat previously reported.

Spectrum decided it would change its policy late Thursday evening, hours after Chalkbeat published a story that revealed how the company was shutting families out of a deal intended to help low-income families needing internet access as classes have shifted online. 

Kasirer, the lobbying company that represents Spectrum’s parent company, Charter Communications, told Manhattan Councilwoman Carlina Rivera the change would go into effect in the “earlier part of next week,” according to an email obtained by Chalkbeat. The company did not specify a date.

A spokesperson for Spectrum confirmed after this story was initially published that the company will now allow New Yorkers with outstanding balances to access the free 60-day offer. They did not immediately say when the change will go into effect.

Chalkbeat initially reported on the issue last week, after a Bronx mother said her daughter received a school-issued computer but was unable to sign up for service because of a $150 debt with Optimum from a few years ago. Tom Sheppard, a Bronx parent leader, said he had heard the same concern from about a dozen other families. 

After Chalkbeat asked Optimum about their policy, a company spokesperson said Thursday morning it was waiving the rule over outstanding balances. Spectrum, at the time, had not followed suit. When Chalkbeat raised the matter with Mayor Bill de Blasio during his Thursday evening press conference, he said he was unaware of the issue and would seek action.

De Blasio’s office “immediately” got in touch with the company, which decided to reverse course, Freddi Goldstein, the mayor’s press secretary, wrote in a tweet Friday morning. The city plans to remain in close contract with Spectrum to ensure the change takes effect next week, officials said.

De Blasio had not learned about the issue before Thursday, Goldstein said in an email. But parent leaders, teachers, and elected officials had complained about the problem for weeks. 

Rivera, who represents the Lower East Side, said she had been asking the company to reverse its policy since mid-March. She had also sent a similar plea to Altice USA, the company that oversees Optimum. 

About a dozen families told Rivera that they couldn’t access the 60-day offer because of old debts, she said. As she made calls, she also encouraged some families to do the same so Spectrum could hear their stories. 

“We were really worried about the impact that this policy was having on our families, especially when so many of them were already struggling at home,” Rivera told Chalkbeat Friday morning. 

“We appealed directly to these larger companies letting them know that at a time of crisis, we felt that essentially poverty was being punished,” she continued. “An outstanding bill should not prevent a student from being able to learn.”

The company’s change was good news for Harlem mother Charlesetta Brown, who has been trying to get her apartment equipped with Spectrum’s service since last week. A company representative told her she didn’t qualify because she owed them $309 from 2014. 

“I am definitely gonna call them Monday morning,” Brown said Friday, after learning the company has decided to change their policy. 

Brown’s 8-year-old son, who attends P.S. 194, had been completing paper packets of work since Monday, but was not on Google Classroom like the rest of his classmates. On Thursday, Brown took her son to an older daughter’s apartment in Harlem so that he could log on to the internet. 

“That’s how my son managed to get some work done yesterday,” Brown said. “He missed Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, so we’re trying to catch up.”