$15 Per Month Internet? What's The Catch?

One of the many multi-family cinderblock apartment houses that make up the Imperial Courts public housing community. (Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles)

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Getting low-cost high-quality internet access for work or online school classes has been a challenge for L.A.'s poorest residents, especially during this pandemic.

"Some 300,000 Angelenos have no access to the internet, and another 600,000 are minimally connected through wireless hotspots, phones and tablets, according to recent U.S. Census data", said Hernan Galperin of USC's Annenberg School. He's published studies that conclude that big internet providers have failed to invest in broadband access for Black and Latino residents throughout L.A., regardless of income level.

Some schools and employers have handed out mobile wireless hotspots, and some big internet providers have made low-cost and free plans available that offer a lower-than-standard level of access.

Now, some 3,600 households in four Los Angeles public housing communities will get access to free wi-fi for six months, and pay $15 per month if they want to keep it going.


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Imperial Courts in Watts is the first to be connected, with installations happening later this month. Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs and Pueblo del Rio will follow, with the goal of students being able to have free or low-cost internet to finish out the school year.

The project partners the city of Los Angeles and internet provider Starry, with a grant from Microsoft to accelerate the installation of equipment and wiring.

Here's another helpful feature of the deal. To qualify, there is no credit check, or eligibility requirement to prove a low income (like participation in SNAP food stamps, or reduced price or free school lunches). Anybody with an address at one of the four public housing communities can get the service

FREE AND $15 PER MONTH INTERNET - WHAT'S INVOLVED?

Starry offers a different kind of internet called fixed wireless. The company installs base stations on utility poles or buildings that transmit internet signals up to 1.5 km away (about 9/10ths of a mile). The signals are picked up by receivers installed on the roofs of buildings. From there, coaxial cables connect the roof receivers to internet routers within individual homes.

This diagram from Starry shows how an internet signal is beamed from a base station to the roofs of buildings, where it is then hard-wired via coaxial cable into individual homes and businesses. (Starry)

Fixed wireless internet is less expensive to install than traditional broadband because the company doesn't have to dig up streets or sidewalks to get the signal to homes.

And it can work better than wireless hotspots that sometimes cannot penetrate the cinderblock construction used for public housing complexes.

HOW GOOD/BAD IS THE $15 PER MONTH SERVICE?

Starry has focused on serving residents of public housing communities and large apartment complexes. It has been in the Los Angeles area for about two years, with its standard service costing $50 per month. That standard service gives a customer 200 megabits per second (mbps) uploads and the same speed for downloads.

What Starry is offering the public housing tenants is a lower speed — 30 megabits per second uploads and the same speed for downloads. It's called Starry Connect. After the free six months of service, residents can keep the 30 mbps service for $15 a month or upgrade to the faster 200 mbps speed for $50 a month.

Clearly, 30 mbps isn't as fast as the standard service.

But Starry's 30 mpbs speed is for both uploads and downloads. Which is better than some of the low-priced internet that offers 25 mpbs downloads (fine for streaming) but only 3 mbps for uploads, which is slow for things like Zoom work or classroom conferencing.

This is where Starry may be a better choice over some of the other internet services being marketed to low-income families.

An address search of the state Public Utilities Commission map for broadband service shows that for the Imperial Gardens community, Starry's 30 mbps for both uploads and downloads would be an improvement over what AT&T offers for both downloads and uploads. But it's not as fast as Charter's 940 mbps download and 35 mbps upload service.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly describe the unit of internet speed offered as megabytes, but it's actually megabits.