On May 5, 2020

Battling wifi connectivity issues? There’s help

Staff report

Vermonters are staying home and staying safe during the Covid-19 emergency, but for many that has meant getting by with no access to the internet at home.

The difficulty has been particularly challenging for students who are adapting to remote learning, individuals in need of telehealth care, and workers who could earn an income if they could work from home.

“The Covid-19 emergency has starkly exposed how dependent we are on frequent and reliable internet access to meet every day needs,” said June Tierney, commissioner of the Public Service Department. “Before Covid-19, folks could count on regular access to the internet from many different places such as their workplace or libraries,” she continued, “but now that we have to stay home to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus, the reality is most of us need internet access at home.”

Tierney sees the Covid-19 emergency very much like a “natural storm disaster that rips away bridges and roads. The internet is the highway to essential everyday services. Even if it is only temporary, we need to find ways now to get the internet to people where they live.”

On April 5, Vermont Public Radio reported that 7% of Vermont addresses lack access to basic internet and 23% of Vermont addresses cannot get speeds that meet the federal definition of broadband. Many Vermonters cannot afford connectivity.

To help reconnect Vermonters at home with no internet to the means to meet many everyday essentials, Commissioner Tierney issued a “call to action” on April 10 to Vermont’s utilities and internet service providers, asking that they look for ways to team up and provide home connectivity solutions for Vermonters who have none.

On April 17 the Department released a map, available on its website at Interactive Broadband Map, showing broadband speeds available at addresses across the state. The Department annually collects broadband deployment information from internet service providers in Vermont about where they offer service, and the speeds they offer.

The Department is also tackling the companion challenge of identifying Vermonters who need help now with connectivity. Contact its Consumer Affairs and Public Information Division (CAPI) for assistance at 800-622-4496.

By calling CAPI or visiting the Department’s website, you’ll find Vermont service providers who are offering help during the Covid-19 emergency as well as information about free Wi-Fi hotspots that can be accessed from a car so you can practice good social distancing.

Public wifi hotspots

At the outset of the Covid-19 emergency, the Department published a public Wi-Fi hotspot map on its website to assist Vermonters with internet access for information, remote work and learning. The map identifies places where people can access free public Wi-Fi options from a car to maintain appropriate social distancing. A review of that data found that 38 small towns across the state had no identified suitably socially distant and publicly available Wi-Fi. The Department reached out to public schools, libraries and town halls about partnering to have public Wi-Fi installed for their communities. Over 50 communities have reached out to the Department thus far.

“Broadband remains a critical resource for Vermonters in rural areas to stay connected and work and learn remotely during our Stay Home, Stay Safe period,” said Governor Scott in a statement April 16. “We are grateful to our partners at Microsoft, RTO Wireless and Up And Running I.T. for their assistance in providing this important service.”

“Microsoft approached RTO Wireless about teaming up on deploying free public Wi-Fi at venues located in rural communities that lack sufficient broadband coverage,” said RTO’s CEO Steve Hubbard. “Microsoft offered to fund the purchase and installation of the hotspot devices.”

Justin McCoart’s Bethel-based company, Up And Running I.T., will assist with the local installations. Public host institutions need to have existing broadband service and agree to host the equipment.

“Government and business are trying to help, working together, to build in high traffic and in rural areas,” said McCoart. He further stressed how committed the tech sector is to helping keep people connected, adding: “Everyone is working 12 to 16 hours a day to keep everyone connected to each other. None of this would have been possible 12 years ago.”

Public Wi-Fi spots available through the hot spot device installment initiative are being offered at the Ira Town Offices.

Additionally here are few new, temporary connectivity options that available to help Vermonters through the Covid-19 emergency:

VTel is providing increased network speeds and capacity to Vermont high schools and hospitals. VTel has provided free internet access and Chromebooks to Rutland City Public Schools students affected by school closures due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Charter offered free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi access for 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students who do not already have a Spectrum broadband subscription and at any service level up to 100 Mbps and waived installation fees for new student households.

Comcast Xfinity provided its Internet Essentials free to new, eligible customers for 60 days providing 25/3 Mbps broadband service. It also offers eligible university students who live in Comcast’s service areas and need internet service, a Visa prepaid card worth about two months of internet service with no upfront fees or installation costs. It also provides its own free wifi hotspots at xfinity.com/wifi

QLink provided free cell phone service for income eligible Vermonters. You can apply online with QLink, bring your own phone and get free 8GB of data and unlimited talk and text during the company’s Covid-19 response period.

Consolidated Communications offered two months of free home internet service to help, including free installation for households with students who are not currently Consolidated customers.

Verizon waived overage charges and late fees to support customers who may be financially affected by the Covid-19 crisis and added 15GB of high speed data for wireless consumers with no customer action necessary.

AT&T committed to the Keep Americans Connected pledge and consumers and small businesses that can’t pay their bills because of the pandemic will not be terminated or assessed late fees.

Sprint provided unlimited data for 60 days to customers with metered data plans and gave 20GB of free mobile hotspot use to customers with hotspot-capable devices.

T-Mobile gave current customers who have cell phone plans with data unlimited data for 60 days and an additional 20 GB of mobile hotspot/tethering service for those two months.

For the map of free public wifi hotspots visit: publicservice.vermont.gov/content/public-wifi-hotspots-vermont.

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