Internet and Cell Phone Access

Staying Connected During COVID-19

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Increased access to internet and cell phone services.

Guest Author: Eric Chambers, Northwest Council for Computer Education

I love working from home: My commute is less than a minute from bed to office. I have great co-workers (albeit with feathers and fur). And I get to wear pajamas to work every day. To work from home, though, was a choice that my employer and I made when I started my job nearly five years ago.

Faster Internet Speed

To make work-from-home possible, I have access to certain things—a computer, appropriate software, and a printer all which were provided by my employer, and a few things I had to provide for myself like a space to work, a desk and perhaps most importantly, a stable and sufficient Internet connection. My internet connection clocks in between 150Mbps and 200Mbps on the download. In a practical sense this means I could download a full-length feature film in high definition in about 15 minutes or, perhaps more realistically, it means everyone in my household can be streaming movies, playing games, or surfing the ‘net at the same time with no noticeable lag. But remember, I chose to work from home knowing what I needed to make this work – and, more importantly, I have the resources to make it happen. Not everyone is in the same boat.

Across the county, COVID-19 has changed the way we work, learn, and play. Sadly, way too many people are out of work.  If you are working, and unless you have been deemed “essential” or in an “essential” industry, it’s likely that you are working at least partially at home. In school or have school-aged kid? Welcome to on-line learning. Even our play has been impacted as more people than ever are playing online games with their friends and engaging in more social media use than ever before. All these things (especially when they are happening all at once) can severely tax your internet connection, especially if you have less than 25Mbps.  If this happens, then you might have to change your family’s practices. This may involve:

  • Limiting streaming services and online gaming for everyone during work/school hours. 
  • Modifying cloud back up services like Microsoft One Drive to back up only at night, turn off auto updates for software and applications and update manually after work and schooling is done for the day.
  • Adjusting your router setting to prioritize traffic from specific devices – like Mom’s work computer.

But again, not everyone is in the same boat.

According to a US Census report published in 2018, over 4,000 households in Skagit County do not have Internet access of any kind in their homes. This includes no dialup, broadband, satellite, and even cellular data plans. Another 6,500 Skagitonians have access only through a dialup connection or cellular phone—neither of which are adequate for a full time work at home or online learning situation. This means that 10% of the county does not have adequate internet connectivity.

Low-Cost Connectivity

Lack of connectivity makes it impossible for many to work at home and impossible for students to participate in online learning. Fortunately, through funding from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), many of the big internet service providers offer free or low-cost connectivity to families that meet certain low income guidelines.  For example, both Comcast and Charter/Spectrum offer two months of free Internet for families that qualify. They will even send a router and simple set-up directions right to your home.  In addition, Comcast has made all Xfinity hotspots free and open to the public during the crisis. To access this, simple search for available networks and connect to any open Xfinity networks.

Cellular Access

AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile have also stepped up their game by removing restrictions on their services including removing data caps and allowing existing customer to open hotspots using their cellular data.  Note that some of these providers also offer basic phone service (and sometimes Internet access) to families with low income through the Federal Lifeline Program. You can receive similar benefits through in Washington State if you are an Apple Health member. Community Health Plan of Washington (CHPW) has developed a guide to help their members stay connected. You can access these services through either Assurance Wireless or SafeLink Wireless.

If you have school aged children, talk to your children’s school to see if they have mobile hot spots available for loan as well as, in some cases, laptop computers or Chromebooks.

As a last resort, and only insofar as you can maintain proper physical distancing, consider parking outside buildings that have free and open wireless to upload/download the days work, send emails, and so forth. For example, Skagit County has a free and open wireless network that may work for some as do many other organizations around the county.

Eric Chambers is the Director of E-rate and Special Services at the Northwest Council for Computer Education (NCCE) where he helps schools design and implement technology solutions to enhance student achievement.