Poor Americans Face Hurdles in Getting Promised Internet

()

The people behind a nonprofit that helps workers at the famed Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Ky., had spotted a great opportunity.

With the city’s schools closed because of the coronavirus, some of the workers at the racetrack needed fast internet access for their children. And Charter, an internet provider in the area, was offering two free months of service to any household with a student or a teacher.

One by one, the nonprofit helped sign up families — more than 30 in total.

Then the bills started showing up.

One family that had signed up got a notice in the mail that it owed $120. Another saw a debt appear in its account on the Charter website. Another family got a notice that it owed roughly $75, including for phone service it didn’t get.

“This is a fear for our families,” said Isai Sanchez, 22, the youth program coordinator at the nonprofit, the Backside Learning Center. “Like, ‘How am I supposed to pay $120 right now for a service that I can’t afford?’”

One of Mr. Sanchez’s colleagues called Charter, which provides service under the Spectrum brand name, to ask about some of the surprise charges. The company eventually cleared some of the bills, blaming a miscommunication.

Internet providers like Charter and Comcast have introduced offers of free and low-cost internet with great fanfare in the last several weeks. The companies have said they want to help connect poor Americans during a pandemic that has shifted much of life online. Schools and community organizations have aggressively promoted the offers. Scores of customers have tried to sign up.

But people signing up for the programs have encountered unexpected difficulties and roadblocks, according to interviews with people who have tried to sign up or who have helped them. Their stories highlight the way that the pandemic has stretched the gap between Americans who have easy access to the internet and those who do not, cutting the latter group off from venues for learning, work and play.

The benefits and rules of the offers vary widely, so a customer may not qualify for free service while someone in identical circumstances elsewhere in the country can sign up. Sometimes, people must endure hourslong waits on the phone to sign up, which can lead some to give up before they ever talk to a customer service agent. Others have been deterred by language barriers or are wary of requests for identification.

Several large broadband companies, including Comcast, Charter and Altice, which operates Suddenlink and Optimum, initially said a household could not sign up if it had an unpaid bill for earlier service. They pulled back that requirement when reporters and politicians questioned it.

“We need a more stable solution that doesn’t have all the gaps in eligibility and delivery that these free and reduced offers provide us,” said Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Ms. Siefer supports a federal subsidy that would go directly to consumers to pay for home broadband.

Rich Ruggiero, a Charter spokesman, said the company had moved quickly to offer solid connectivity to Americans who did not have it. In March, 119,000 households signed up for its offer of 60 days of free service to teachers and students, the company reported. Mr. Ruggiero said the company expected as many as 400,000 new families to sign up by the end of June.

Charter has worked around the clock to handle the interest in new and discounted services, Mr. Ruggiero said, “as a way to help connect these families quickly and safely during this challenging time.” He said he couldn’t speculate about the situation in Louisville.

A Comcast spokesman, Charlie Douglas, said the company had “the nation’s largest and most comprehensive broadband adoption program for low-income Americans.”

Latest Updates: Economy

<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/business/stock-market-today-coronavirus.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_2&amp;context=storylines_live_updates" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">See more updates</a>

  Updated 7m ago



More live coverage:

  <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/world/coronavirus-news.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_2&amp;context=storylines_live_updates" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">Global</a>




  <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/us/coronavirus-live-updates.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_2&amp;context=storylines_live_updates" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">U.S.</a>


  <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/nyregion/coronavirus-new-york-update.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_2&amp;context=storylines_live_updates" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">New York</a>

“We’ve been working on the challenge of tackling the digital divide” for nearly a decade, he said.

ImageCharter’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn. A spokesman said the company was working diligently to connect families “quickly and safely during this challenging time.”
Charter’s headquarters in Stamford, Conn. A spokesman said the company was working diligently to connect families “quickly and safely during this challenging time.”Credit…Andrew Sullivan for The New York Times

Customers are often left scrambling to figure out what offers are available for them. Charter’s program, for example, is aimed at students and teachers, while Comcast, the country’s largest internet provider, is offering free service to a variety of low-income groups, including those with subsidized housing or a veteran’s pension.

In addition, the companies do not serve all parts of the country.

Leah Christen of Fayette, Maine, near Augusta, heard that a cousin who lives an hour away had gotten a deal on internet service from Charter. She started making calls to find out if she could, too.

Last year, Ms. Christen, 36, broke a disc in her back, which made it impossible to go back to her job as a technician in a nursing home. With an infant daughter at home, she started to take classes at a community college to become a certified medical assistant.

Ms. Christen’s training and study groups were being held online, but she had no internet connection at home.

Charter said its service did not reach her home. Then she tried AT&T, which was offering two months of free service during the pandemic. An agent asked for her address, put her on hold for 15 minutes and returned to say the company’s service couldn’t reach her, either. (AT&T does not offer home internet service in Maine.)

“I’m not in the middle of nowhere,” Ms. Christen said. “I’m a half-hour from our capital, and I can’t get service.”

      <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/news-event/coronavirus?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">The Coronavirus Outbreak</a>















    <ul>

      <li>
        <h2>Frequently Asked Questions and Advice</h2>
        Updated May 12, 2020



        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>Is ‘Covid toe’ a symptom of the disease?</strong></h4>
            There is an uptick in <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/01/health/coronavirus-covid-toe.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">people reporting symptoms of chilblains,</a> which are painful red or purple lesions that typically appear in the winter on fingers or toes. The lesions are emerging as yet another <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-symptoms.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">symptom</a> of infection with the new coronavirus. Chilblains are caused by inflammation in small blood vessels in reaction to cold or damp conditions, but they are usually common in the coldest winter months. Federal health officials do not include toe lesions in the list of coronavirus symptoms, but some dermatologists are pushing for a change, saying so-called Covid toe should be sufficient grounds for testing.
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>How do I take my temperature?</strong></h4>
            Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-temperature-fever-thermometer.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.</a>
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>What should I do if I feel sick?</strong></h4>
            <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/22/well/what-if-i-have-coronavirus.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have,</a> and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>When will this end?</strong></h4>
            This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/20/us/coronavirus-model-us-outbreak.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank"> how well the virus is contained</a>. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In <a href="https://www.aei.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/National-Coronavirus-Response-a-Road-Map-to-Recovering-2.pdf" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">an American Enterprise Institute report</a>, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/upshot/coronavirus-four-benchmarks-reopening.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">staked out four goal posts for recovery</a>: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>How can I help?</strong></h4>
            <a href="https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&amp;cpid=7779" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">Charity Navigator</a>, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the <a href="https://www.redcrossblood.org/donate-blood/dlp/coronavirus--covid-19--and-blood-donation.html" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">American Red Cross</a>, and <a href="https://wck.org/" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">World Central Kitchen</a> has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>Should I wear a mask?</strong></h4>
            The C.D.C. has <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/03/world/coronavirus-news-updates.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">recommended</a> that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/31/health/coronavirus-asymptomatic-transmission.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank"> new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms</a>. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>How do I get tested?</strong></h4>
            If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/22/well/what-if-i-have-coronavirus.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. </a>They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>How does coronavirus spread?</strong></h4>
            It seems to spread <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/22/world/coronavirus-spread.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">very easily from person to person,</a> especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>Is there a vaccine yet?</strong></h4>
            No. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/us/politics/coronavirus-vaccine-competition.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">Clinical trials are underway</a> in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>What makes this outbreak so different?</strong></h4>
            Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/article/what-is-coronavirus.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">little is known about this particular virus so far.</a> It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>What if somebody in my family gets sick?</strong></h4>
            If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/22/well/what-if-i-have-coronavirus.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C.</a> If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>Should I stock up on groceries?</strong></h4>
            Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/15/business/coronavirus-food-shortages.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">the supply chain remains strong.</a> And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>Can I go to the park?</strong></h4>
            Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/well/move/coronavirus-covid-exercise-outdoors-infection-fitness.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.</a>
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>Should I pull my money from the markets?</strong></h4>
            <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/26/your-money/stock-market-changes-virus.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">That’s not a good idea.</a> Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.
          </li>
        </ul>




        <ul>
          <li>
            <h4><strong>What should I do with my 401(k)?</strong></h4>
            Watching your balance go up and down can be scary. <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/07/your-money/target-date-funds-stock-market.html?action=click&amp;pgtype=Article&amp;state=default&amp;module=styln-coronavirus-markets&amp;region=MAIN_CONTENT_3&amp;context=storylines_faq" rel="noreferrer noopener" target="_blank">You may be wondering if you should decrease your contributions — don’t!</a> If your employer matches any part of your contributions, make sure you’re at least saving as much as you can to get that “free money.”
          </li>
        </ul>



      </li>

    </ul>









            &lt;![CDATA[
              .cls-1 {
                fill: #111;
              }
            ]]&gt;

Some customers have found that no one from the internet providers can speak with them in their primary language. The companies generally offer information about the programs in English and Spanish, posing a problem in places with large immigrant populations, said officials in school districts around the country that have encouraged families to sign up for the deals.

Mr. Douglas, the Comcast spokesman, said information about its coronavirus response was available in 27 languages. The company's call centers can use an on-demand translation company to speak to customers, he said.

But getting through to a person can also be a problem. In Louisville, Mr. Sanchez said he had waited on hold for six hours when trying to sign up one family. Marlon Styles, the superintendent of the Middletown City School District near Dayton, Ohio, said demand for the free service was “significantly higher than the capacity of our providers.”

What happens after a free service offer ends can be another source of confusion.

Kimberlyn Barton, a part-time student at the University of Texas in Austin whose classes moved online, spent a recent week looking for affordable broadband service before she moves into a new apartment.

Ms. Barton, 36, is eligible for a federal broadband subsidy for low-income people and received emergency funding from the university to help pay for internet. When she called Charter, which services her new apartment, an agent told her about the company’s offer for students. But then the agent said the monthly cost would be $49 for the nine months after the offer ended and eventually go as high as $69, more than Ms. Barton was able to pay.

Mr. Ruggiero, the Charter spokesman, said that in addition to its internet service that starts at $49.99 a month, Charter offered a low-cost plan to people on certain forms of public assistance.

Ms. Barton expected to go with a cheaper AT&T plan.

When customers do get service, it can change the way they are able to work and their children are able to learn during the pandemic.

With that in mind, Mr. Sanchez, the youth mentor in Louisville, has spent recent weeks teaching himself to refurbish old laptops and distribute them to the children of workers.

Some of the families the center has signed up for internet service have used it to fill out their census forms.

Students have logged on to do their work “rather than wait to go to school, get on the bus, go to the library,” Mr. Sanchez said. “And since libraries are closed, it’s like, where else can you go?”

Original Article

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating / 5. Vote count:

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.

Leave a Reply