The city is using money it received from a federal pandemic response fund, the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, to cover at least 12 months of bills for each family, totaling around $120 a household. They hope to find more funds to continue the program beyond a year.
The program’s launch comes in the middle of a pandemic that has highlighted the debilitating consequences of a wide technology divide in the city that has left tens of thousands of families without Internet access. And the launch arrives a week after most public school students in the nation’s capital started the academic year virtually. Schools have already spent millions of dollars on Internet hotspots for students and have scrambled to deliver them to students who need them.
But Lindsey Parker, the District’s chief technology officer, said the program is not arriving too late. She said having an Internet connection at home is more reliable than using a portable hotspot. And because many students are transient — spending the day at a relative’s home, for example, if a parent has to work — the hotspots are still necessary, she said.
“This is the most cost-effective solution in the short term to making sure that these families have Internet access,” she said. “During the most unprecedented virtual school year, this is the fastest and most effective way to do it.”
The technology office will contact eligible families by text, phone and email this week. If officials do not hear back, they will try again next week. Families who believe they are eligible but are not contacted can ask their schools to connect them with the program.
The program is relying on schools’ contact information for families, though campuses have struggled to connect with some of their families during the pandemic. If funds remain, the city would consider expanding program eligibility and would include, for example, undocumented immigrant families who may need Internet but do not qualify for public assistance.
Another challenge of the program will be earning families’ trust. Some families may already have unpaid bills or have experienced billing disputes with the Internet companies. But Parker said the city can guarantee the families will not be charged. When the program is complete, the bill will not automatically transfer to the family. And while the city will remind families to return the company-owned Internet router, they will not be charged if they fail to do so.
“There is going to be a trust barrier,” Parker said. “This is a government program and the plan is not to lead them down a path where they are going to get a bill. . . . The bill comes to us.”
The city will be purchasing families a $10 monthly Internet essentials program — affordable Internet programs aimed at low-income households. At about 25 megabits per second, the bandwidth of the package is far lower than typical entry-level home Internet package. But Parker said it is much faster than this basic package has been in years past. She said with this bandwidth, families should be able to watch about five videos at a time.
She said the city is considering other ways to provide Internet to students, including equipping entire public housing complexes with Internet, instead of individual units. But she said the city determined that paying these Internet bills would be a quicker and more reliable solution.
“This is the right thing to do,” Parker said.