Worcester continues negotiating with Spectrum for student internet ahead of school year start

Worcester continues negotiating with Spectrum for student internet ahead of school year start

A lack of reliable, consistent internet access has been an issue for many in Worcester for years, but the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, forcing employees and students to work and learn from home, has put a spotlight on the issue.

With the final decision on Thursday to have Worcester Public Schools students learning remotely at least through November, and with some companies asking employees to keep working from home as the wait for a vaccine continues, internet access is among top concerns in Worcester this fall.

“This is not just an issue for our students trying to log into virtual classes. It’s an issue for our employees working from home, patients and doctors trying to engage in telehealth, even for court hearings, the wellness check for children and families that are court-involved,” Worcester Mayor Joseph Petty said Thursday, speaking during a virtual forum regarding the city’s internet challenges, hosted by the Worcester Regional Research Bureau. “Internet connectivity is no longer a luxury. It hasn’t been for a very long time.”

Earlier this summer, the research bureau published a report examining challenges the city faces with internet connection. The report pointed to a “regional monopoly, lack of infrastructure investment and a prioritization of profits over service,” as roadblocks for Worcester and suggested that municipal broadband could be the answer.

The report, citing U.S. Census Bureau data, determined around 67% of city households had a broadband internet subscription and 18% had no internet access.

“This is a longterm issue that will require public pressure, public funding and political commitment over the years to come,” Petty said. Municipal broadband, while providing faster and cheaper service for residents, the mayor said, would cost tens of millions and take years to complete.

Last month, Petty, City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. and Worcester Public Schools Superintendent Maureen Binienda sent a letter to Charter Communications, which serves customers through the brand Spectrum, admonishing the company for its service. The city leaders asked Spectrum to provide affordable service, writing, “Our students should not be penalized for having the misfortune of living in a city served by your company.”

Petty and Binienda have said Spectrum has assigned an employee to work with the city and that discussions are ongoing.

In a statement to MassLive, a spokeswoman said “We have responded to Worcester officials and remain in contact with the city,” but did not respond to questions asking if the company would improve Spectrum Internet Assist program speeds or offer other services to customers in the city.

“We are continuing negotiations with Charter for a better, low-cost option for our families in our city, but there’s still outstanding issues with their proposal. We’re working together with them,” Petty said.

When schools abruptly switched to remote learning in the spring as coronavirus spread through the community, a number of students did not have internet access at all, had spotty service, or did not initially receive Chromebooks from the district to ensure they could complete online schoolwork.

With the new school year starting Sept. 15, the district plans to have a Chromebook in the hands of each student by the first day of school. Hot spots are also available for families that need access to the internet, said Binienda, which students can pick up with a Chromebook.

There are about 600 instructional assistants in the district, Binienda said. The district has ordered Chromebooks for those employees as well.

Spectrum will now allow the district to pay for internet for students, which would cost $24 per student per month, Binienda said. That price reflects residences that are already wired for internet. If an address isn’t wired, there’s an additional cost that the district would not be able to cover, Binienda said.

The district has 17,000 families, Binienda said. If 10,000 needed to be connected to the internet, Binienda offered as an example, 5,000 would be covered by hot spots already purchased by the districts, leaving 5,000 more to be covered at the price of $24 each month.

To keep the hot spots running from Aug. 28 through the end of the school year is costing the district $750,000, Binienda said. The superintendent said she’s hopeful the 5,000 hot spots will cover all the students in need of internet connection.

“What I don’t know right now is how many may have lost their internet maybe during the summer,” Binienda said. “When principals are calling, because we want to be one-on-one on with Chromebooks, for the families to come in, they’ll also be asking them about connectivity.”

Petty called the hot spots a partial solution and said there have been discussions about building out the city wireless network to improve cell service and WiFi.

The schools need to distribute 14,000 Chromebooks over the next few weeks, said Petty, who is also the chair of the Worcester School Committee.

More communication with Spectrum is needed, Binienda said.

The lack of internet access for some students highlights an equity gap in the community. In a letter to parents and families regarding the upcoming school year, Binienda wrote the district is committed to equity and “will continue to take action to ensure all students have access, resources and high-quality instruction.”

Timothy Murray, the CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber has heard anecdotally that businesses with employees working from home are also struggling with the internet.

The topic is one the chamber has been focused on for several years, Murray noted, pointing to reports the chamber had prepared on small cell technology and fiber connectivity in 2018 and 2015, respectively.

Murray said the issue needs a sustained effort from city hall, which has the most leverage. Murray said he hopes there could be a city ordinance that would allow carriers to install 5G.

“We’re asking all of the carriers to step up and Spectrum plays a role in that, you’ve got AT&T, Verizon, and there’s several other companies,” Murray said. “I can tell you that Verizon and AT&T are very anxious to install 5G across the city. They’re prepared and ready to make that investment. Unfortunately, it’s getting the ordinance done is taking longer than we would have liked.”

Murray said he hopes the ordinance can come through in September.

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