We have all seen that the major telecommunication companies are offering free internet service to students due to the unprecedented school closures. But what does that really mean? Is free really free?
Caveat: Equity is about more than internet access.
I have been extremely concerned about how much of the work teachers have posted this first week of the school closures requires internet access. I know several of my students only have limited internet access, many relying on limited phone data. My own cell phone plan provides 2GB of data that I share with my mom; that allows us to watch 4 hours of video…not each, but combined…not daily, but a month. And according to the Pew Research Center, I am upper class; most of my students’ families are not.
This morning I called the number that was provided to families to set up their free service. Here is a paraphrased transcript of the call with my internal dialogue in parentheses.
Recorded Voice: Your current wait time is 28-32 minutes.
Customer Rep: Good morning, I see you already have service with us. How can I help?
Me: I’m actually calling because I’m a school teacher and would like more information about the services you are providing students.
Customer Rep: I’m happy to help.
Me: Are there any fees associated with this? Is there an equipment fee?
Customer Rep: There is a $5 monthly fee for the router, but the modem is free.
Me: (this is not free) Ok, how do families go about setting this up? Do they need documentation to prove they are low-income?
Customer Rep: There is an online low-income qualifier form that families can complete. They can upload proof there.
Me: (how do they fill this out if they don’t have internet?) Does qualifying for free or reduced lunch count? (what form do students have proving this?)
Customer Rep: Yes, but wait. Did your school provide a flyer?
Customer Rep: Could you read it to me?
Me: Well, it isn’t really a flyer. It is a notice that says call this number to set up free service for eligible residents. I’m trying to determine what “eligible” means to help my students.
Customer Rep: In that case, they do not need to fill out the online form (thank goodness). They just call and provide their address. If their address qualifies, which most will, and they are new customers that did not have prior service, we will set it up and ship out their equipment. Be aware that shipping will take a couple days.
Me: You just mentioned prior service. What does that mean?
Customer Rep: They can’t have had service within the last 30 days.
Me: What about customers who have other services with you, but not internet? Would that count as new service?
Customer Rep: Yes. They can call and get internet added.
Me: Thank you for your help.
Customer Rep: I notice that you have not taken advantage of our great mobile phone plans. Would you be interested…
- Free is never free.
- Even if families called immediately to set up service, they still may not have set up or even have their equipment yet.
- Teachers: Don’t be a data hoarder. Your class is not the only class they are taking.