City launches program to provide free internet access to 35,000 families

The $17 million PHLConnectED will offer Comcast Internet Essentials service to households with K-12 students for two years.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The city and the Philadelphia School District are tackling the digital divide with the launch of PHLConnectED, a $17 million program to offer free Comcast Internet Essentials service to 35,000 families of K-12 students for two years.

The program will be paid for by public funds and private donors. Officials said Comcast is contributing $7 million to the effort. The city will use $2 million in local CARES Act funding, $1 million from the William Penn Foundation, and additional grants from the Neubauer Family Foundation, the Philadelphia School Partnership, and others. The School District and a number of charter schools also are investing in the project. So far, $11 million has been raised.

The city hopes to secure the funding to extend the program beyond two years. Mark Wheeler, Philadelphia’s chief information officer, said this effort addresses “an immediate need,” adding that the city is engaged in a longer-term effort to bridge the digital divide with the goal “to address the needs of all households beyond K-12 and make it permanent.”

“The digital divide has been a long-standing and significant barrier” for public school families, said Superintendent William Hite. He said he believes the program will close that divide.

The city will spend $7.2 million on two years of wired internet access, $5.1 million on hotspots and $1.7 million on a digital navigator program to offer families training and technical support. The navigators also will assist multilingual families and those who need services for students with special needs.

The program is being implemented with a “strong diversity and equity lens,” said Wheeler.

In recent weeks, public education advocates, including teachers and principals, have rallied for free access for students. After today’s announcement, several key advocates, including the group Movement Alliance Project (formerly Media Mobilizing Project) and City Council member Helen Gym, reiterated calls for Comcast to open up residential hotspots to provide reliable universal access across the city.

“I don’t believe that the District, which is facing a looming billion-dollar deficit, should be paying any extra money to Comcast or any network provider just to get its students online,” Gym said in a statement. “Paying for individual hotspots or trying to hardwire families address by address is extremely complicated in a city where 19,000 evictions occurred last year alone – pre-pandemic. Any address-based system will fall short as families unfortunately become more transient as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and fallout.”

Comcast has said opening up residential hotspots is technically problematic and would result in slower service for paying customers.

Wheeler echoed Comcast’s arguments against opening up residential WiFi hotspots as unrealistic, saying the connections would be too unreliable and variable based on the distance capabilities of household networks. Additionally, private customers would have to volunteer to donate a portion of their bandwidth for public use. “I don’t see how it is workable or feasible,” he said.

Wheeler said the city selected Comcast to provide the free internet access because the hometown company is the only provider that covers all city neighborhoods. T-Mobile will be providing the hotspots for students who are housing-insecure.

The School District and city are reaching out to families who they know are in need of help accessing the internet, based on information from the spring when the pandemic forced schools to close and students to quickly pivot to online learning. Families with children enrolled in the District who need access are being asked to call 215-400-5300 if no one has yet reached out to them.

“We are trying to reach the hardest-to-reach families,” said Otis Hackney, the city’s chief education officer. “Students who are not connected.”

When schools shut down in March, Comcast offered the first two months of Internet Essentials free to new customers. After that, it costs $10 a month. The company’s CEO Brian Roberts and his wife also donated $5 million to help the District purchase laptops for students who didn’t have computers at home.

However, some Comcast customers said they had trouble qualifying for the free service because of past-due bills or lack of proper documentation. Under this new initiative, schools will give any household who lacks access a code to use to call a hotline to enroll in the program. Families will not be screened with the usual eligibility rules. Comcast will then turn on internet service, with the cost covered by the money that has been raised. The city also is bulk-purchasing home wiring for the internet through Comcast.

City and school officials released statements in favor of the PHLConnectED, with most emphasizing the need for universal internet access across the city and noting that this is just a first step.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Philadelphia was grappling with a crisis of poverty and inequality that left far too many of our vulnerable young residents without access to quality educational resources that they deserve,” said City Council President Darrell Clarke in a statement. “The events of 2020 have made it clear that internet access is not a luxury, it’s a basic necessity and we should make every effort to provide it to our residents.” He thanked the coalition for making digital equity “a top priority.”

Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children & Youth, said, “Brokering this partnership to tackle and overcome the myriad of connectivity challenges students faced last spring is remarkable and will make a world of difference for students in this city. There is a great deal more to be done to make virtual instruction meaningful, but it all begins with dependable connectivity, reliable internet access with reasonable speed.”

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan called the announcement a “welcome step forward.”

“Our students will be depending on access this fall so that, in these trying times, they are able to connect with their educators and their peers while staying healthy at home,” he said.

In a statement to the Notebook, Robin Cooper, president of Commonwealth Association of School Administrators, said: “CASA requested for Comcast to assist the School District of Philadelphia in ensuring that the equity issue was resolved. We are almost there.”

“This collective and moral responsibility can be met if we are truly attempting to close the achievement gap,” said Cooper, who protested in front of Comcast headquarters with CASA on Wednesday. “Comcast, who has a 40-year rich history in the city of Philadelphia, can truly put children and families first by giving high-speed internet and residential hotspots. CASA is requesting Equity Through Connectivity.”

Devren Washington, senior policy organizer at Movement Alliance Project, called the new program “a notable win for Philly’s students, educators, and the community members who have been organizing and advocating to close the digital divide ahead of the upcoming school year.” But he added that “it is far from enough.”

In addition to reiterating the call to open residential hotspots, the advocacy group wants Comcast to offer the program to educators, including paraprofessionals, and increase Internet Essentials’ upload and download speeds.

Council member Gym called on Comcast and other internet service providers to make Philadelphia “a shining example of the advances of the tech and communications industry by opening its residential networks so no child or family has to have a barrier to online learning.”

She added, “It is a shame that the city has to fill a gap that Comcast, Verizon, and other service providers have the resources to make happen.”