New Programs Distribute Free Internet as Unemployment Soars

Utility or luxury?

Key Takeaways

  • There’s a growing movement across the country to provide free or low-cost internet access to people experiencing poverty.
  • Massachusetts recently announced that it would provide Internet access subsidies and give away free equipment to the unemployed. 
  • A library in New Jersey is distributing wireless hotspots free of charge to residents suffering economic hardship.
Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM) is told she will be missed as she takes the podium to speak with members of the Problem Solvers Caucus to praise the forthcoming passage of the bipartisan emergency COVID-19 relief bill in a press conference outside the US Capitol on December 21, 2020 in Washington, DC. T
Cheriss May / Getty Images

As the coronavirus pandemic grinds down the economy, there’s a growing movement to provide free or low-cost internet access to people experiencing poverty. 

The state of Massachusetts, for example, recently announced that it would provide subsidies for Internet access and give away free equipment to the unemployed. The pandemic has drastically increased the number of unemployed people in the U.S. and around the world. A lack of internet access is a significant barrier to getting people back into the workforce and can interfere with students doing remote learning, experts say. 

"Broadband internet is as essential to our daily lives as water and electricity, but it's not as widely available as those two utilities," Jeffrey Trzeciak, the director of Jersey City Free Public Library in New Jersey, said in an email interview. 

Hot Spot Giveaway

The Jersey City Library is distributing wireless hotspots free of charge to residents who are suffering economic hardship. Since March, the library has distributed about 300 hotspots, Trzeciak said.

When libraries were permitted to reopen at 25% capacity, the library started providing computer access at its 10 locations citywide. Computer usage in the Library has not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels, but it is rising steadily each month. The library also just started a partnership with the Jersey City Municipal Court to lend out tablets to those in need of a connected device to make their virtual court hearings.

"Broadband internet is as essential to our daily lives as water and electricity, but it's not as widely available as those two utilities."

In Massachusetts, officials have launched a program called Mass. Internet Connect, which provides free internet to job seekers. The program is part of a state hiring program that also offers digital literacy classes. The state is working with internet service providers, including Comcast, Charter, and Verizon, to provide subsidies and devices to job seekers. 

"The internet is critical to those seeking a new job, and these new programs recognize and aim to help solve connectivity challenges for people looking for work," Governor Charlie Baker said in a news release.

"These investments will help to get and keep people connected, so they can continue to engage with prospective employers, access the trainings and services offered by MassHire and their partners, and ultimately get back into the workforce."

Stimulus Package Includes Broadband Aid

The federal government is also stepping in to help bring internet access during the economic downturn. The coronavirus aid package approved last month by Congress, earmarks $7 billion to help Americans connect to high-speed Internet and pay their monthly bills. 

Someone applying for a job online.
Scott Olson / Getty Images

About half of the money will go to low-income families. 

"I think it demonstrates Washington woke up in the pandemic to the reality that broadband is no longer nice to have, it’s need to have," Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic commissioner at the FCC, told The Washington Post.

"Households without it don’t have a fair shot at maintaining some semblance of modern life when so much of modern life has migrated online."

Not being able to afford internet access is particularly challenging for families with students who are learning remotely during the pandemic. A report last year from Common Sense Media found that about 30% of the 50 million public school K-12 students in the U.S. lacked access to either high-speed internet or devices.

An Indianapolis program addresses this problem with a pilot program that gives free broadband access to K-12 students. "It is so critical to find a more sustainable way to support internet access so school districts don’t have to continue to shoulder the gap for our students," Aleesia Johnson, the superintendent of Indianapolis Public Schools, said in an interview with a local NPR station

Bridging the digital divide is particularly important during the pandemic. The local and federal measures to bring internet access to impoverished people are steps in the right direction, but more needs to be done. The eventual economic recovery will only be broad and equitable if all Americans can get online.

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