Unpaid bills put free internet offers out-of-reach for some local families

One month after Indianapolis schools closed their doors, Elvira Rangel Beltran’s four children are working on paper packets while many of their classmates video conference with teachers.

Local schools have pointed families toward widely publicized offers for free internet access during the coronavirus crisis, but Rangel said she has been blocked from a free 60-day deal because of an old unpaid bill.

The provider, Spectrum, won’t connect the internet until she pays her balance in full, Rangel said. She can’t afford the payment of several hundred dollars because she’s out of work while hair and nail salons are shut down under the state’s stay-at-home order. That means her children are “cut off from school,” Rangel said through a Spanish translator, “and missing out on their education.”

While providers such as Spectrum, AT&T, and Comcast have touted free internet offers to bridge technological divides, some families across the country still can’t afford service, which can come with strings attached. Low-income families and families experiencing financial hardships are turned away because of outstanding bills or deterred by pricey installation fees.

Not having internet access presents a critical barrier to education during this time of remote instruction, said Justin Ohlemiller, executive director of Stand for Children Indiana. The parent advocacy organization has been helping families find resources and urging internet service providers to change their policies.

“We’re hoping some of the internet providers do the right thing and help support families,” Ohlemiller said, adding that internet access “is no longer a nice-to-have, it’s a must-have. In our minds, it’s as essential as heat or clean water.”

A Spectrum spokesman didn’t respond to emails from Chalkbeat asking about its policy for Indianapolis families with unpaid bills. The fine print on Spectrum’s offer notes that families must have “no outstanding obligation” to qualify for two months of free internet access. It also says the offer could still come with other charges, including an installation fee.

In New York, Spectrum recently waived its policy requiring past-due bills be paid after Chalkbeat revealed how it barred some students from pursuing their education.

Among other Indianapolis providers, Comcast temporarily changed its policy to allow customers with outstanding debts to qualify for two free months of service during the public health crisis.

“A lot of families may be in a crisis-mode right now, which is a challenge made more difficult if a family was already struggling before stay at home orders were issued,” Mike Wilson, public relations director for Comcast in Indiana, wrote in an email.

AT&T spokesman Phil Hayes did not answer whether the company’s offer for two months of free internet for low-income families extends to those with unpaid bills, saying the question from Chalkbeat was “hypothetical.”

Ensuring internet access for families is a top priority for the city of Indianapolis’ newly launched e-learning fund, but there’s no coordinated plan yet for how to address the issue, said Patrick McAlister, the director of the mayor’s Office of Education Innovation.

The city is considering a range of strategies, including providing internet hotspots at apartment complexes with large numbers of students and pushing internet providers to expand service, McAlister said. But before efforts move forward, officials are waiting for responses to a survey of charter schools and districts to understand their urgent needs due to COVID-19. “Once we have a more holistic picture, it’s something that we can respond to,” he said.

So many families lack internet access in Indianapolis Public Schools that the school district purchased about 1,500 mobile hotspots for families. But Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said the city needs a more comprehensive, long-term solution.

IPS also sent laptops to high school students, including Rangel’s older children. Her younger children have tablets, but those devices are far less useful without the internet.

Rangel hoped that Spectrum could add internet service right away while putting her on a payment plan. But so far, she’s been unable to get online.

Rangel drove her children to a friend’s house a few times so they could log on to video meetings from there. But she knows such visits pose health risks, with the coronavirus spreading quickly in Indiana.

She feels “powerless,” she said through the translator. “It’s not even about asking for a free pass, it’s just asking for something to be worked out.”

An unpaid debt is also preventing Swentalla Nelson and her daughter in third grade from getting access to the internet. When Nelson called Spectrum last month, she was told that she would need to pay nearly $500 in old cable bills first. “I’m not trying to get out of paying the bill. I just need the internet for this time that everything is shut down,” she said.

Without the internet, her daughter, who attends Edison School of the Arts in IPS, hasn’t been able to use online learning software.

“I feel like that’s a resource that has been taken away from her,” Nelson said. “I don’t have all the material here to teach her what she needs to know in order to go on to the next grade.”

Even parents without outstanding bills have sometimes struggled to get internet service. Shawanda Tyson has been trying for weeks to sign up for broadband so her 11-year-old son can do schoolwork and video chat with teachers. When Tyson initially called Spectrum, she said she was told that in order to get the internet up and running, she would need to prepay $150 to cover installation and service. She couldn’t afford the payment, so she didn’t get broadband.

Over the past week, Tyson has been driving to her sister’s day care to use the internet, but she and her son aren’t working inside. Instead, from about 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, the pair have stayed in the car, doing assignments and meeting with teachers by video. A fifth-grader at Ignite Achievement Academy at School 42 in IPS, Tyson’s son has autism and ADHD, so he also has sessions with his occupational and speech therapists.

After two more calls to Spectrum, Tyson was finally able to get internet access on Monday.

Tyson is still frustrated, however, that even though she said she had school-age children at home, the first two salespeople didn’t tell her about the free service.

“It’s great that they’re offering the service, but it’s not good that they will try to sell things to people that are already under a lot of pressure,” Tyson said. “Don’t ask me to buy other stuff when I’m trying to figure out how I’m gonna put some food in these kids’ mouths.”

Chalkbeat is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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2 thoughts on “Unpaid bills put free internet offers out-of-reach for some local families

  1. Sounds like to me they are trying to get out of paying their old bills. Why didn’t she pay them when she was working? Don’t worry though Ole Joe Hogsett will figure out a way to make the test of us osy for it, hell you can get free rides to grocery stores, free rides on Indygo, why not free internet.

  2. Rhea P. Have some compassion! Internet is expensive. If things turned south financially, it would only take two or three months to rack up $500 in cable bills. If you school has now gone online and you don’t have internet access, you have just been kicked out of school. Educated citizens is worth so much more than a few months of unpaid cable bills.

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