Despite Free Internet Offers, Some Low-Income Parents Struggle To Get Kids Online For School

A student receives a laptop computer for remote learning in front of L.A. Unified's Bell High School. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

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Since the coronavirus struck, Tamara Solis has called four different companies offering "free" internet service. She didn't have internet at home, and her children, ages 8 and 10, need to get online to do schoolwork.

But on every call, something happened that led Solis to conclude many of these offers were not truly "free."

One company told Solis they don't serve her address; she lives in Watts. Another transferred Solis to the "sales department," so she hung up. A third company asked Solis for her Social Security number, which led her to wonder, "Why? They said it was going to be free."

Solis finally talked to her mobile phone carrier. At first, they offered her a paid plan. Solis talked them down to a free month, which is already up.

Being unable to access these companies' offers left Solis in tears: "I cry because it's like a lie to the people."


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Before the pandemic, Solis didn't mind that her kids were without internet at home. She wanted them outside, "playing with dirt, with the dogs, with the bunnies — not too much on the tablet, not too much on YouTube."

It took the pandemic — and her children's disconnection from school because of it — to convince her she was on the wrong side of the "great big digital divide" that leaves most of the families in her neighborhood without internet.

"It's not because I want it," Solis said, "it's because we need it ... You need the internet at home."

REPORT: PARENTS STRUGGLE TO ACCESS DEALS

Since the coronavirus forced schools to move most instruction online, internet providers have promoted deals aimed at bridging this digital divide.

AT&T and Charter Spectrum, among others providers, have both announced offers for two free months of internet service. While the particulars differ, the offers generally target low-income families whose children are at particular risk of falling behind in distance learning because they lack an internet connection.

Solis is likely not the only parent struggling to access these deals, according to a report released Wednesday by the organization that runs the school Solis' children attend.

Staff of the Partnership for L.A. Schools, who posed as customers in Watts seeking to access advertised free services, were told by both AT&T and Spectrum reps that "no free trial" was available — unless they signed up for full-cost service that would begin in 60 days.

And that's if the company even offered internet at their address. Of the six providers the Partnership called, only AT&T served most of Watts' 90002 zip code. Spectrum was not available at most Watts addresses the Partnership tried.

THE COMPANIES RESPOND

Many of the report's claims perplexed spokesmen for both AT&T and Spectrum, who said their companies' offers of free- or low-cost internet are genuine.

AT&T has long offered a $5 or $10 per month service for low-income families, said spokesman Jim Kimberly. He said after the pandemic hit, AT&T expanded eligibility requirements for the service and made it free for new customers — with no disconnection fees.

Overall, the report "confuses" this offering for AT&T's standard, full-cost service, Kimberly said.

But Kimberly also said anyone looking to sign up for this discounted AT&T service has to call a different, dedicated phone number — so maybe that explains why the Partnership reported being offered full-cost service.

(NOTE: There's more information on low-cost internet offers and LAUSD's device distribution at the end of this story.)


OUR REPORTING ON THE DIGITAL DIVIDE:


Spectrum's spokesman Dennis Johnson also disputed the report's claim that his company is attempting to upsell potential low-income customers.

Since March 16, the company has offered two months of "free internet ... for families with school-aged children and professional educators who are not currently Spectrum Internet customers" — also with no cancellation costs.

Johnson said the report is incorrect in saying Spectrum doesn't serve Watts. He said the company's service is widely available in South and East L.A., though it's possible some apartment buildings aren't wired with their service.

More broadly, Johnson said the number of families signing up suggests that there are fewer barriers than the Partnership suggests. While he couldn't disclose exact figures, Johnson said "response to our free internet offer has been strong."

'THIS IS A PR WIN'

But the Partnership is standing by the report, saying it reflects common concerns of parents from the organization's 18 low-income L.A. Unified School District campuses in Watts, South L.A. and Boyle Heights.

A handful of parents at Partnership schools were still unaware of these offers of low-cost internet service. Even larger chunks reported long waits on the phone for service — particularly for callers requesting to speak to a customer service rep in Spanish.

Rafael Balderas, principal of Bell High School, stands between stacks of laptop computers for distribution to students amid the coronavirus pandemic on April 15, 2020. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

The Partnership also reported that AT&T requires a $99 deposit for any person signing up for service without a Social Security number — which is a barrier for families living in the U.S. without authorization. (AT&T spokesman Jim Kimberly said the company requires no such deposit on its low-income service.)

"This is a public relations win for [these companies] to announce special offers during this time," said Chase Stafford, the Partnership's director of policy and planning and the lead researcher on the project.

"That's great," said Stafford. "We want companies who deserve praise to get it. But we need to ensure that actual services match up to what they're saying in announcements."

'EARLY PROGRESS'

The Partnership's report mostly lauds LAUSD's efforts to close the digital divide so far: "We commend L.A. Unified's swift decision" to spend $100 million on laptop purchases and contracts with wireless carriers to distribute internet hotspots.

"We are encouraged by early progress," the report said.

Of around 1,000 parents the Partnership surveyed, around half had received a school-issued laptop. Another 30% had their own device for students to use.

As of April 4, roughly 20% of parents from the Partnership's low-income schools still did not have a laptop.

Device distribution has progressed significantly since then — though on KPCC's AirTalk on Tuesday, LAUSD's Chief Academic Officer Alison Yoshimoto-Towery said that the district will likely be distributing devices through mid-May.

Earlier this week, Watts parent Tamara Solis got her hands on the device she needed: an internet hotspot provided by LAUSD. Her second grader and fourth grader should be able to access distance learning lessons now.

She's cautiously optimistic — but she doesn't know how well it will work with two students, and two devices, connected to it at the same time.

"I'm still waiting to see how it's working," she said. "I'm not going to tell you it's 100% good."


WHAT LOW-COST HOME INTERNET OPTIONS ARE AVAILABLE?

Here are a few options:

  • AT&T: The company's Access program offers internet service at $5-10 per month for low-income families. Through April 30, the company is offering two months of Access service for free. They've also expanded eligibility to all households enrolled in Head Start or receiving free or reduced-price meals at school. Families can apply here or call: 855-220-5211 (in English) or 855-220-5225 (in Spanish). For all other households, AT&T has paused disconnections and late fees through May 13, and is also "temporarily" waiving overage fees on home internet data.
  • Charter Spectrum: Teachers and families with school-aged children who aren't already Spectrum customers can sign up for two free months of internet service. After those 60 days, a spokesman says the company will offer a "discounted promotional price" for another 10 months. Customers can cancel at any time. Spectrum also offers low-cost service for certain qualifying low-income households. Families can sign up here or call 844-488-8395.
  • Starting on March 20, existing T-Mobile customers on smartphone plans will receive an additional 20 gigabytes of data to use their phones as hotspots for the next 60 days. The company is also expanding data allowances for schools using their wireless plans.
  • L.A. Unified School District families who need access to either a laptop or an internet hotspot — and haven't been contacted by their school — are encouraged to call the district's hotline: 213-443-1300.

If you know of an offer that's broadly available in L.A. that we've missed, contact the author of this story here or by filling out the form below: