Months into the school year, the one thing many families have learned is how much they rely on a functioning internet connection to access remote classrooms. So education equality experts who are trying to chip away at the many challenges families are struggling with through the pandemic are starting by simply trying to identify which students aren't connected to make sure those households have access to affordable packages.
But even though most internet service providers, or ISPs, offer affordable packages, they refuse to say how many customers they have signed up for the programs. That is forcing some city officials and internet equality groups to take data-gathering into their own hands.
In Philadelphia, city officials have struggled to get the data from Comcast, one of the nation's largest ISPs and the owner of NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News. So city officials contacted families directly to find out whether they have internet service. Philadelphia said that as of Oct. 21, after a media campaign, surveys and canvassing, it had been able to bring over 11,000 families online since March. In Nashville, Tennessee, a group is starting its own digital divide census, because it isn't counting on ISPs like Comcast and AT&T to help.
"I don't think that we should rely on companies to give proprietary data," said Fallon Wilson, a co-founder of the National Black Tech Ecosystem Association and co-founder of the Digital Inclusion and Access Taskforce in Nashville. "They're not going to do that."
It doesn't look like ISPs are providing this information any time soon. Five of the country's largest ISPs, including Charter (also known as Spectrum), AT&T, Verizon and Lumen (formerly CenturyLink), in addition to Comcast all declined to provide information about how many low-income customers had signed up for their programs. They all said the information was proprietary.
But it becomes clear very quickly that providing the information offers results. Cox, an ISP that serves Las Vegas, Phoenix, Atlanta and other cities, provides the information, and school officials have already seen that more students are getting coverage.
As coronavirus case numbers rise and even more children switch to remote learning, educators and elected officials are feeling greater urgency to get access to the information.
"It matters right now," said Angela Siefer, the executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, who has expressed frustration that ISPs will only say how many people they have helped in the years since they started offering affordable Internet instead of during the coronavirus pandemic. "It doesn't matter over the life of the program."
Many large ISPs, including Comcast and Charter, started offering affordable programs because the government ordered them to. The Federal Communications Commission required ISPs to provide such services to low-income households as a condition of corporate mergers. However, while they disclose the figures privately to the FCC, they then redact the figures for the public. A spokesperson said the FCC still considers the data proprietary.
Comcast said it provides service to more low-income families than all of its competitors combined — over 8 million through its Internet Essentials program in the past decade. But it didn't provide specifics about how many people it has actually signed up through the pandemic.
"We don't report active subscribers and instead report lifetime connects," Charlie Douglas, a Comcast vice president, said by email, saying such a metric is an "industry standard" across telecommunications companies.
It's a battle that public interest groups were fighting well before the coronavirus pandemic began, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an advocacy group that works on broadband issues. He said it's time for state and federal government agencies to step in.
"The FCC and states should be requiring broadband companies to submit basic data about these issues and it should be made publicly available," he said by email. "Public interest groups have argued for this for years but the providers frequently claim it is all proprietary data they cannot let their rivals know about."
But educators and advocacy groups have started to push harder for the data, especially given that some districts that had reopened for in-person learning are closing again.
In California, advocacy groups, including United Ways of California and other education-focused organizations, sent a formal letter to the state's Closing the Digital Divide Task Force seeking better data from major companies that serve the state, including Comcast and Spectrum. About one-third of all students in the state don't have access to an internet connection or a digital device, according to data tracked by the Public Policy Institute of California.
"Although the State does issue broadband reports, they are not sufficiently specific to those who are not connected and/or under-connected; and, much like ISPs' reports they focus on access and adoption rates but there simply isn't enough comprehensive data on obstacles facing existing and potential subscribers," the letter states.
In Philadelphia, where Comcast is headquartered, local leaders have asked multiple times in meetings for it to disclose the levels of Internet Essentials usage and have sent letters and emails. But the company has said the figures are confidential and proprietary.
Without the information from Comcast or the other large ISPs that serve Philadelphia, the city has had to do its own research, said Mark Wheeler, the city's chief information officer. That's the only way to determine where to direct municipal efforts, a process that is slower and more complex without the figures.
"We would love that type of data. It would be extremely helpful for us in terms of knowing who is and who isn't a subscriber," Wheeler said. "Where do we do our outreach? We don't have unlimited amounts of money."
In the meantime, Wheeler said, the city is trying to reach out directly to families who can benefit from the Internet Essentials program in Comcast's hometown as part of the city's new PHLConnectED program, which streamlines the sign-up process for needy families.
Under the program, the city has managed to sign up nearly 8,000 households. But the city still doesn't know who else Comcast has already signed up under Internet Essentials.
"Since the City is the sponsor (in Comcast terms) of the service agreement, we only get exact figures on the number of subscribers in that service agreement for PHLConnetED," Wheeler said in an email. "We do not get Internet Essentials subscriber counts that exist in the entire boundary of the city."
Wilson, of the National Black Tech Ecosystem Association, is working to create a digital divide census for Nashville, because she wasn't confident that ISPs would share this information with her in the first place. Comcast and AT&T are the large providers, and they won't disclose such figures. While Google Fiber also serves Nashville, it doesn't offer any low-cost option. But it provided a $50,000 grant to the Nashville Public Education Foundation. So Wilson hopes to ultimately create a "digital inclusion commission" — a municipal body responsible for monitoring the information.
When ISPs provide the data, education advocates are able to identify those who need internet service much more quickly. Cox, which is a major provider in cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix, serves 140,000 low-income families under its Connect2Compete plan, spokeswoman Shana Keith said. More than one-tenth of Cox's nationwide low-income connections are in Clark County, Nevada, home to Las Vegas.
Cox's disclosures, combined with the state efforts to disclose information, have offered much better results. Nevada has even maintained an online scoreboard where anyone can see how a given district is doing in terms of connectivity and get clear instructions if remaining families need technical assistance. The results have been stunning: Melinda Malone, a Clark County School District spokeswoman, said 18,355 families have been connected, "most of which is through Cox Connect2Compete."
That has meant that across the Clark County School District, fewer than 1,000 of over 315,000 students remain unconnected, and the relationship between the ISP and the school district has been much stronger.
"Cox has been a great partner to the District," Malone said. "Cox has helped us work through any problem that has come up."