By Matt Polka, President and CEO
ACA Connects members have proven time and again they are invaluable to their communities. Since COVID-19 has spread throughout the country, this reality has never been clearer. Every day, I hear wonderful stories about ACA Connects members’ selfless service to others during these challenging times – efforts designed to ensure their stay-at-home customers have the broadband connectivity they need for education, work, health care, and being in touch with loved ones and friends.
As just one aspect worthy of recognition, ACA Connects members have provided home broadband connections for students who lack them, enabling these students to continue their schooling in the same manner as their peers. These actions have included: establishing new, or enhancing existing, programs for at-home connectivity for students; providing free broadband service for at least 60 days for households with students that do not have a broadband connection; working hand-in-hand with schools to accelerate referrals of student households in need; providing significantly discounted broadband service; and establishing hotspots that enable connectivity anew in households or public locations that are convenient for students and their families. All of these actions are above and beyond our members’ commitments not to disconnect or charge late fees to existing customers, some with school children in the home, that missed payments.
Here is a sample of the numerous ACA Connects members that have helped low-income students, along with a description of what each has done:
ALLO Communications – To implement its goal of promoting accessibility of learn-from-home, ALLO is offering 50/50 Mbps broadband for $10 per month to households who have students attending Lincoln [NE] Public Schools, and who participate in the FCC’s Lifeline Program.
Antietam Broadband — Antietam is waiving fees for 60 days for new customers via its already-discounted Antietam Edu-Net service, and is working with Washington County (MD) Public Schools (WCPS) to accelerate the school system’s referrals of local low-income families with a student attending WCPS for the Edu-Net program. Antietam also is partnering with Hagerstown Community College (HCC) to assist eligible students in securing broadband access through the Edu-Net program. The Edu-Net program offers 10 Mbps downloads, free installation, and free home Wi-Fi access. Dr. James Lauber, President of HCC, extolled that “Antietam Broadband recognized our internet access needs and were able to quickly provide a solution that supports our students and our community.”
Atlantic Broadband – To ensure that households have access to Internet, particularly households with students, Atlantic Broadband has introduced for a limited time, for residents in financial need in its service areas who do not presently have Internet with Atlantic Broadband, its “Atlantic Broadband Internet Assist” program. The new 15/1 Mbps service, normally priced at $9.99 per month plus taxes and fees, has been offered free for 60 days. Program customers also receive free installation and a free modem with the service.
Cable One (Sparklight) – Beginning March 19, 2020, Cable One made available for 60 days a $10 per month Internet plan with 15 Mbps download speeds. The plan is available to college students, as well as low income families and seniors, and no documentation is required to sign up for the plan. Cable One also has actively participated in other localized projects promoting student at-home broadband access. For instance, in Idaho, Sparklight is testing the connectivity in support of the Community Activation Project, an innovative program to bring computers and connectivity to Idaho students who, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, have lacked a home computer and/or home Internet service. Sparklight also has worked with Idaho school districts to install multiple community hotspots enabling students to learn from home without incurring charges for connectivity via the hotspots.
CASSCOMM – CASSCOMM made contact with all of the school districts in its Illinois coverage area to discuss ways to help out the districts—especially the students—once online learning started. CASSCOMM let the districts know about options for the students, such as a cheap Internet promotion they could sign up for, as well as a list of hotspots—including 40 new hotspots CASSCOMM has opened up across its footprint since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic—that students can leverage for connectivity. Most of the districts helped CASSCOMM get broadband to specific families and also provided helpful suggestions on where best to position new hotspots.
Comporium Communications – Comporium offered 60 days of free broadband service to new customers in homes where a student lives. Eligible homes included the primary home of a student in kindergarten through high school, in technical school, in college, or in graduate school. Comporium also provided free installation, and waived its normal security deposit process for establishing service.
Consolidated Communications – Consolidated has assisted hundreds of low-income families of students affected by recent school closings by connecting their homes to the Internet and providing two months of free home Internet service.
GCI – On March 23, 2020, GCI announced that it is offering its entry-level broadband plan with Wi-Fi equipment to students and teachers for free until May 31, 2020, and waiving credit checks and deposits for service and equipment. It is also working directly with the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, as well as the Alaska Council of School Administrators, to help identify K-12 students and educators who may not currently have Internet connectivity.
Grantsburg Telcom – Grantsburg has been providing free Internet access for the remainder of the school year to any K-12 household that did not previously have home Internet access. Grantsburg general manager Terry Kucera reported that “[b]y working together with the Grantsburg [WI] schools we were able to ensure every student in the district that didn’t already have Internet access is now enjoying a fast and reliable broadband connection.”
Hiawatha Broadband Communications – Hiawatha has offered 60 days of free broadband service to new customers who qualify for the free or reduced-price school lunch program, as well to new customers who qualify for the national Telephone Assistance Program. Hiawatha is working with local school districts in its Minnesota service areas to accelerate the school systems’ referrals of low-income families to ensure every qualifying student has home Internet access through this program.
Hotwire Communications – Hotwire is offering free 100 Mbps broadband for two months to new customers that are students or live in low-income households.
Mediacom – Mediacom announced on March 16, 2020 that it is increasing the speed of broadband provided through the Mediacom Connect2Compete program from 10/1 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps. In addition, qualifying families who subscribe before May 15, 2020 will receive 60 days of free service through the program. To be eligible for the program, a household must be a new Mediacom customer that has at least one student in grades K-12 living at home who qualifies for free or reduced-price school lunch through the National School Lunch Program. Mediacom’s Connect2Compete program also features no deposit, no contract, no installation fees, no equipment rental fees, and a Wi-Fi modem via a no-cost lease.
MetroNet Fiber – MetroNet announced on March 25, 2020 that new customers who have students in the home can take advantage of free 500 Mbps speeds for 60 days so students can access school materials online seamlessly. Metronet also is waiving all installation fees for new residential customers, and continuing to provide unlimited Internet service with no data caps.
Nelson Cable – Recognizing the importance of Internet connectivity as schools moved to online learning, Nelson Cable (VA) announced on March 13, 2020 that it would provide new customers 50/4 Mbps Internet service free through June 30, 2020, including free installation and a free modem. Furthermore, Nelson Cable will provide free additional bandwidth through June 30, 2020 to its existing lowest-speed subscribers who require it for distance learning.
OzarksGo – OzarksGo has partnered with several Arkansas school districts to create Wi-Fi hotspots in convenient locations so families can park at the hotspot to access the Internet. The hotspots are connected to OzarksGo’s fiber optic network, offering high-performance Internet connections, while relieving students of the substantial costs of relying on cellular data usage. Moreover, according to the Huntsville School District’s director of technology, for many students the hotspots are faster than the residential service available where they live.
RCN, Grande Communications, and Wave Broadband – On April 7, 2020, RCN, Grande and Wave launched the Internet First program over their footprint in 11 states. The program offers, through May 31, 2020, free Internet up to 25/4 Mbps for 60 days to students and families in low-income households who are new subscribers. The program also includes a modem and standard Wi-Fi, free installation, no contracts, and no credit check. After the initial free 60 days, the program costs subscribers $9.95 per month (plus applicable taxes) through the first year of subscribership. RCN, Grande and Wave will partner with school districts to ensure local communities are aware of these tools to help students learn remotely.
Service Electric Cable TV & Communications – Service Electric [PA] is offering free 10/5 Mbps Internet service for 90 days to new customers, including those with students in the home, “during this ongoing national emergency.”
TDS Telecommunications – From March 16 through April 16, 2020, TDS offered free broadband access for 60 days to new customers who are low-income individuals and/or families with children and college students.
Vast Broadband – In South Dakota, Vast offered a free 30/5 Mbps Vast Essentials Connection for two months to students at Black Hills State University (BHSU) who did not have Internet access at home. The offer also included a wireless modem, as well as no installation fees or contracts. BHSU President Laurie S. Nichols commented that the “offer of Vast Broadband to assist our students is especially meaningful because it connects directly with the students’ access to education.”
In connection with laying out his Keep Americans Connected program, Chairman Pai challenged providers to take even further measures to, among other things, promote remote learning. ACA Connects’ small and midsized cable companies have met that challenge across the country in this time of national crisis. I am proud—but not surprised—that, yet again, ACA Connects members have risen to the occasion not only for their existing customers, but also for the students in the communities they serve.
We recognize that the efforts of ACA Connects members alone will not meet the connectivity needs of all schoolchildren all the time. School districts, states and the federal government have a responsibility as well. ACA Connects supports well-designed government programs, which work in tandem with, and do not undercut, private sector efforts. Government programs should support what is working in the market and intervene only where necessary to meet the remaining issues that the marketplace cannot solve on its own.