Worcester officials fed up with Charter/Spectrum
What happens when internet service is a barrier to remote learning? And what happens when resolving the internet access problem is in the hands of a private company, which holds a regional monopoly on broadband internet service and has no incentive to negotiate?
That appears to be the case in Worcester, where city officials are going public with their frustration over Charter/Spectrum’s failure to negotiate a deal to give low-income families affordable internet access.
In a sharply worded July 20 letter, Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty, City Manager Edward Augustus, and school Superintendent Maureen Binienda wrote that they are “deeply disappointed” with Charter/Spectrum and “frustrated with your inability to work with us.”
The city officials wrote that since May, the company’s response has been, “We hear you but are unwilling to work with you to address your extraordinary challenges. Period.”
Internet access became a major challenge statewide when schools shut down in March, and students relied on internet service to do their schoolwork. Many parents also needed reliable internet to work from home. In a 2018 survey, 18 percent of Worcester households lacked internet access.
Petty told CommonWealth that with students likely to continue some amount of remote learning in the fall, it is “an equity issue” to ensure every family has access to the Internet. “We understand they’re a business, we’re not looking for something for free. We’re looking for something where it becomes affordable for our families,” Petty said.
In response to the pandemic, Comcast offered its Internet Essentials service – which is typically available to low-income households for just $10 a month – free for 60 days to all new customers, through the end of 2020. But Comcast is only available in certain regions of Massachusetts. Charter/Spectrum is the only broadband internet provider in Worcester.
The Worcester officials said they initially hoped to convince Charter/Spectrum to offer a low-cost plan like Comcast’s. They then asked Charter/Spectrum to let the school district bulk purchase access to the lowest-price plan, so the district could give access to its families. The company said no.
Charter/Spectrum said in an email that it did offer students, teachers, and their families access to free 60-day internet service at speeds of up to 200 Mbps. But that offer expired June 30. It waived late fees and did not disconnect customers experiencing economic hardship, also through June 30. Charter/Spectrum also offers low-income families a broadband plan that costs $18 a month, plus taxes, fees, and $5 a month for a wi-fi router, for a 30 Mbps connection. “At Charter we’re committed to continuing a dialogue with the city on ways to help residents get and stay connected,” the company said in a statement.
In a letter to Worcester officials dated July 8, the company touted both these plans — even though the free service for students had expired. The only plan offered for the city or school district to buy in bulk for families was one that cost $50 a month, rather than the cheaper plan reserved for low-income residents.
Petty said that is too expensive for the city, which would likely be relying on contributions from the Worcester Together fund, which solicits money from foundations and private donations, to purchase the plans.
Private and charter schools have generally made the transition to at-home learning more smoothly than their district public school counterparts, which may provide some lessons for the fall.
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