As the coronavirus crisis shuts down city schools, thousands of students in Philadelphia, the hometown of the country’s largest internet service provider, are without access to the internet.
About 14,700 kids in Philadelphia didn’t own a computer in 2018, according to the latest census estimates. And thousands more lack the internet connection they need to learn from home, as more than 21,500 kids did not have an internet subscription.
Those children being effectively off the grid presents a significant challenge to officials in a city that has lagged behind the country in households with home internet. That digital divide, which disproportionately affects poor and predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods, has become an urgent issue as the pandemic forces many to study or work from their homes.
“This really brings the issue into focus all of the sudden, and it’s a huge challenge in Philadelphia,” said Andrew Buss, deputy chief information officer for the city. His office has been trying to spread the word about low-cost broadband options and public places with free WiFi, now that libraries have closed their doors.
A 2019 survey by the School District of Philadelphia found that only 45% of students in grades three through five accessed the internet from a computer at home, compared with 56% in grades six through eight, and 58% for high school students.
The survey of 130,000 people found that fewer than a third of the students at public and charter schools in pockets of North and Southwest Philadelphia used a computer at home to access the internet.
The district is strongly encouraging students to learn during the pandemic but is not penalizing those who can’t, as many don’t have the necessary technology. Last week, the school board authorized spending $11 million to buy as many as 50,000 computers to make remote learning possible for all students. Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts donated $5 million to help pay for the equipment.
On Thursday, the Philadelphia School Partnership announced an effort to buy 15,000 Chromebooks for students in city charter and parochial schools.
Even if the equipment issue is resolved, connecting kids to the internet is more complicated. The School District said it is working with the city and Comcast to help as many Philadelphia families get free or low-cost access to the internet.
“Our intention is to provide a comprehensive list of low-cost Internet options or details on accessing free WiFi mobile hot spots to ensure that our students can use the Chromebooks we’re providing,” School District spokesperson Imahni Moise said in a statement.
In response to the pandemic, Comcast said it’s giving customers unlimited data for no additional charge and making its network Xfinity WiFi hot spots at public places and small businesses free for everyone. The company has also pledged that it won’t disconnect service or impose late fees if customers can’t pay their bills during the crisis. In addition, Comcast is offering new low-income customers 60 days of free internet service and boosting their broadband speeds. And until May 13, the company is waiving a requirement that barred consumers from signing up if owed Comcast a debt that was less than a year old.
In 2018, almost 80% of Philadelphia households had broadband, including smartphone-only plans, fourth-lowest among the 25 largest U.S. cities, according to the census estimates. The city saw an 8 percentage point improvement from the year before, the largest one-year jump made by any big city. Still, census data show that large swaths of the city are without a fixed wireline connection, putting them at a disadvantage as education, health care, and commerce increasingly move online.
Many households access the internet solely from smartphones, which are hardly a substitute for faster, fixed wireline connections to computers, experts have said. Just 66% of households in the city subscribed to cable, fiber-optic, or DSL broadband service, according to census estimates.
Americans who rely on smartphones were more likely to run up against data caps, and say they had a hard time paying service bills, said Monica Anderson, a researcher at the Pew Research Center. These smartphone-only users were also more likely to apply for jobs on their phones, rather than computers with larger screens and more capabilities, she added.
Excluding homes that rely just on smartphones, subscription rates were much lower in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, such as Fairhill, where 36% of households had a broadband connection. By contrast, 85% were wired to the internet in Center City.
As for the suburbs, most have ample internet access except for Chester City and Camden, where only about half of households have broadband.
A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia showed significant disparities in broadband adoption between different places, income levels, and races and ethnicities.
For example, 71% of households in the district the bank covers — made up of Eastern Pennsylvania, South Jersey, and Delaware — subscribed to broadband, compared with 58% of households in low- and moderate-income communities. Predominately white neighborhoods were far more likely to have broadband (73%) than black communities (53%) or Latino and Hispanic neighborhoods (50%), according to the March report.
“Broadband access is about more than just posting TikToks and being able to stream Netflix. It can increase a person’s quality of life quite a bit,” said Alvaro Sanchez, the Fed analyst who authored the report. He noted that the coronavirus has made online health care and remote access to work and school more important. “But they’ve always been important in the past because broadband is essential infrastructure,” he added.
Comcast declined to say how many people have signed up for low-cost internet since offering two months free after the pandemic started. Since its inception in 2011, the program, which offers broadband at slower speeds for $9.95 a month, has signed up 300,000 in Philly. But that doesn’t account for people who later drop the service.
As the coronavirus crisis forced the Philadelphia School District to shut down, Lauren Ballester checked in with the families of her sixth-grade students to make sure they were all right. The answer from a few families surprised her.
We don’t have internet at home, they told her. And they were afraid their kids would fall behind because schools were shut down, said Ballester, a teacher at William H. Ziegler School.
“I knew that there were some kids who don’t have WiFi,” Ballester said this week. “But it didn’t become as clear what a barrier that was until now.”