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With the start of the school year just weeks away, city officials on Thursday announced a plan to provide free internet access for 35,000 low-income families that currently lack it.
Under the plan — which will cost $17 million, paid for with a mixture of philanthropic, school, and local CARES Act funding — some households will be wired for free broadband access via Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, and other families will receive at no charge wireless hot spots purchased by the city from T-Mobile.
Families with children enrolled in the Philadelphia School District and charter schools are eligible for internet access, as are children in Catholic or other private schools; district and charter schools have provided or will provide laptops or tablets for each student. Under the plan, families will also have access to “digital navigators” charged with providing technology support.
Families will be guaranteed free access for two years, but city officials said they mean to continue the program given adequate financial support.
Mayor Jim Kenney called the announcement a “transformational moment” triggered by the pandemic. He said the program will “make a powerful impact on lessening the digital divide.”
Thursday’s announcement comes amid growing public concern and pressure — including two rallies outside the Comcast Center this week — after the district recently announced plans to begin the school year online only starting Sept. 2. But the city has been working with the district, Comcast and others on the project since COVID-19 forced school online in March, officials said.
As the pandemic continues, the need for connectivity for all is urgent, said Mark Wheeler, Philadelphia’s chief information officer; those without internet access are unable to effectively participate in not just education, but health care, employment and other endeavors.
“This is an immediate need,” Wheeler said. “An equitable recovery is not possible if we don’t tackle this.”
The city is coordinating the digital equity effort, and will use $2 million in local CARES Act funding to pay for it, but no money from its general fund; instead, private donors including the William Penn Foundation, the Neubauer Family Foundation, the Philadelphia School Partnership, and others will fund the bulk of the project. The largest donor, chipping in $7 million, is Comcast itself, officials said; in all, $11 million has been pledged to date.
Officials estimate they will spend $7.2 million over the two years on wired internet access, $5.1 million on hot spots and $1.7 million on the digital navigator program.
It wasn’t immediately clear how much the district and charters would be required to pay, but Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said the school system has already had offers of funds to cover its portion of the cost.
The city did not seek competitive bids for the broadband service because Comcast “is citywide,” Wheeler said. “We don’t have another provider who has complete 100% coverage.”
In the tight time frame officials have to work with, piecing together coverage from other providers was not possible, Wheeler said; in future years, the city hopes to seek a more “open, competitive” process and serve low-income Philadelphians beyond those with school-age children.
Hite praised what Maari Porter, Kenney’s deputy chief of staff for policy and strategic initiatives, called “a bold and urgent citywide initiative,” and said Philadelphia’s role was especially key as the district prepares for fully remote instruction that will last until at least November.
Schools and district staff are now identifying families who lack internet access to get as many online as quickly as possible, Hite said. The superintendent said the digital navigators will aid in that process, and will be equipped to help families whose children are English-language learners or require special-education services.
“Those types of resources are critically important,” Hite said. “That’s work that we were also trying to do on the fly while we were also trying to do other things — feed children, instruct them.”
Thirty percent of Philadelphia households with schoolchildren lack internet access, according to census data; 58% of households making under $70,000 do not have access. And there are racial disparities — 50% of Black households have internet access, while 74% of white households do.
The School District estimates thousands of students were unable to engage in remote learning in the spring because they lacked reliable internet access, despite the Internet Essentials program, which Comcast offered needy families free in the spring. Some district families reported difficulty accessing the program.
Mobile hot spots will be more appropriate for some families, including those with unstable housing situations, city officials said, and the digital navigators will help smooth the way for those who have had trouble gaining broadband access.
Months ago, Hite said he asked all city internet service providers to open up residential hot spots to students, but was told such hot spots were not engineered for broad public use. (Comcast did open up public and small business hot spots, as well as pledging to not disconnect service or charge late fees if bills are not paid on time.)
Wheeler said broadband internet was a much better solution in terms of capacity and reliability.
Dalila Wilson-Scott, president of the Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation, said the digital divide was too vast a problem for any entity to conquer alone.
“It took everyone to come together to make this happen,” Wilson-Scott said. “We are appreciative of that type of collaboration.”
Porter, the city strategic initiative official, hailed Comcast’s role in the digital equity effort.
“They’ve been a really strong partner with us as we’ve been building this initiative at a very rapid pace,” she said of Comcast, which has connected about 300,00 low-income city residents to the internet through its Internet Essentials program since 2011.
With Sept. 2 the first day of school for 125,000 children in the Philadelphia School District, the clock is ticking to get families enrolled; Wheeler said the city and its partners would work as quickly as possible to get as many students online as quickly as possible, but said an exact timeline was not clear.
“It’s going to be a process,” Wheeler said, “and we’re still putting it together.”
The nonprofit Movement Alliance Project, which has pushed Comcast to do more to get families online, said the plan was “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 said that it did not go far enough and that some students might still lack access.