Struggling New Yorkers Tasted Free Wi-Fi -- Until the Bills Came

New York City broadband providers won praise last year for giving students free internet service after the pandemic hit and schools went remote. Then came the bills.

The “free internet” deals were mostly limited-time promotions that brought new subscribers to companies like Optimum parent Altice USA Inc. and Spectrum parent Charter Communications Inc.

The companies’ internet divisions have reported double-digit growth during the pandemic thanks to soaring broadband demand. But some new subscribers say they were duped.

“They shouldn’t be charging now,” said Bibiana Hoyos, a Brooklyn parent who said she’s forgoing electricity payments to cover the internet fees that allow her children to stay in school.

Hoyos is one of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers living on the margins of access to the internet nearly a year into the pandemic. The crisis elevated connectivity from convenience to a necessity on par with water or heat.

Lack of broadband access is a problem across the U.S., where about a quarter of Americans don’t have service at home, according to 2019 data from Pew Research Center. But 1.5 million New Yorkers lack both home and mobile access, or about a fifth of residents, in what’s arguably the busiest, most connected city in the U.S.

‘Doing The Impossible’

Before the pandemic, Hoyos’s children -- Juan, 19; Gabriela, 18; and 12-year-old Joseph -- finished their community college and middle-school homework at school or at a library. That’s no longer an option. Her husband, a plumber and the family’s sole breadwinner, saw business drop 40% when Covid-19 hit. With only $1,500 coming in each month, they can no longer afford their $1,900 monthly rent.

So when Hoyos got an email from P.S. 299 in Brooklyn advertising a free service to get families online, she rushed to sign up. Optimum sent her a router. At first, Hoyos got invoices for $0. Then, the company began charging the family $14.99.

That’s still a discounted rate, but Hoyos says she has to scrimp to make sure she has “$15 in my account, because if not, the bank charges me an overdraft fee,” said Hoyos, who’s behind on her electricity bills by about $1,000. “We’ve been doing the impossible to avoid that.”

It’s not just New York.

In Mississippi, New Mexico and Arkansas, the worst-ranked states, more than a fifth of households don’t have internet access, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Census Bureau.

Nonetheless, the pandemic pushed students across the country into virtual-only schooling. Without a reliable connection, logging on for live video instruction can be stressful. Many districts reported falling enrollment, and some teachers say many students just don’t show up.

Struggling New Yorkers Tasted Free Wi-Fi -- Until the Bills Came

In response, internet providers rolled out short-term promotional programs with two months of free Wi-Fi.

Spokespeople for the companies said they connected hundreds of thousands of students without broadband. John Bonomo, a Charter Communications spokesman, said the company connected 450,000 students, teachers, and families and forgave $85 million in overdue balances. The company declined to say how many people who signed up as first-time customers through the program have become paying customers. Altice spokeswoman Janet Meahan said the company “offers a variety of solutions to ensure students in the communities we serve have reliable access to broadband connectivity.”

Mayor’s Personal Appeal

Nearly three-quarters of the 1.1 million students in New York public schools, the nation’s largest system, are “economically disadvantaged,” according to the city’s Department of Education. Officials say the companies haven’t gone far enough to serve the most vulnerable.

“It’s nothing more than marketing,” said Jessica Tisch, New York City’s commissioner of the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications. “It’s promotion.”

Tisch said the city has been trying to persuade companies to grant free or reduced pricing to more families in need for years and that Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to create universal broadband back in 2014.

The commissioner said the city is hamstrung. Although New York chooses companies for service charters, it primarily grants charters based on coverage rather than price. That reduces price competition, Tisch said.

Without formal authority, the city is merely an “aggressive advocate,” Tisch said.

Indeed, de Blasio sent letters to chief executives at Altice, Charter and Verizon Communications in October pleading with companies to extend their service to students in need.

“I am asking, on behalf of New Yorkers disproportionately impacted by this devastating pandemic, for Altice to do more for our city’s students,” de Blasio wrote in one of the letters seen by Bloomberg News. “We need broadband providers to step up and do their part. It’s time to provide free internet service to all New York City public school families who cannot afford an internet connection at home.”

The companies didn’t oblige. Instead, the city said Altice donated 250 iPads to the city and said it would give teachers a $5 monthly discount. Verizon also donated 20,000 portable hot spots, which use mobile phone service to create areas with Wi-Fi. Altice, Charter and Verizon all said they have discount programs for low-income customers that offer reduced prices for internet.

The city delivered 450,000 cellular-enabled iPads to students in need between March and December, and ordered 50,000 more, according to the education department. A spokeswoman said schools have ordered 100,000 additional mobile devices and that the city plans to install Wi-Fi in 200 homeless and domestic violence shelters.

“We have some students trying to follow lessons on their cellphones,” said Jasmine Gripper, who runs advocacy group Alliance for Quality Education. “There were kids in shelters who weren’t allowed to use the shelter’s Wi-Fi, or the shelter was in a dead zone.”

Adding to the confusion were offers of “free internet” that parents didn’t realize were limited-time promotions, Gripper said.

Copies of the promotions reviewed by Bloomberg News delineate that they were 60-day trials, and that service will cost $14.99 thereafter. But parents “weren’t clear on what they had signed up for,” she said.

Digital Divide

Closing the digital divide during the pandemic has been a Herculean lift for state and local governments. California, like New York, has called for universal broadband and providers have offered discounts or temporary free service.

Chicago Public Schools recently said all low-income public-school students will be eligible for free high-speed internet and that it plans to enroll 100,000 students by the school year’s end. The program was funded, in part, by billionaire hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin.

Struggling New Yorkers Tasted Free Wi-Fi -- Until the Bills Came

In Washington, more than 800 companies and associations signed a voluntary disconnection ban with the Federal Communications Commission, but that expired over the summer. U.S. lawmakers have asked internet providers for data on how many customers they’ve disconnected from service since.

“It just underscores in such a huge way the layers of inequity,” said Eilis Klein, director of operations at Yonkers Partners in Education, a nonprofit. “Some students just hit a wall.”

In the Bronx, Grisel Cardona said she signed up for what she thought was a free program so her daughter could attend virtual classes. But she could no longer afford her bill, so her 10-year-old daughter began tuning into class via cellular signals on an iPad. The poor connection has made her miss classes and she’s falling behind, Cardona said.

For now, Hoyos, the Brooklyn parent, said she has to prioritize Wi-Fi bills to avoid calls from the school.

“When the teacher calls me to tell me he’s not in class, it feels like my ground is shaken,” she said. “Why would he ever do that on purpose? The connection just fails.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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