Connectivity is the key to success in a world where everything from school to work to happy hour has suddenly gone virtual. But as we all prepare to shelter in place for what seems likely to be months rather than weeks, many families in Santa Fe are still without fast, reliable internet connection.
Luckily, internet providers big and small as well as local government entities such as the city of Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education are pitching in to make sure everyone can stay connected during the uncertain times ahead. Some of these efforts are working better than others.
On Wednesday night, the City Council unanimously voted to allocate $500,000 toward immediate COVID-19 relief efforts,which include setting up wi-fi hotspots at public locations with large parking lots where residents can access the internet from their cars. This is already available at Santa Fe Public Libraries under the network LibraryGuest and password Library2020. Other locations that will come online in the next two to three weeks include Genoveva Chavez Community Center and Fort Marcy Complex.
Comcast, the largest home internet provider in the US, joined several other broadband and cell service providers last week in pledging not to charge late fees or cut off service for those who cannot pay their bills because of the financial impacts of COVID-19.
The company promised to make Xfinity hotspots free for everyone—including non-subscribers—and says it will provide 60 days of free in-home internet access to low income families through their Internet Essentials service.
In initial conversations with SFR about its new distance learning curriculum, Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García told SFR that the district would rely on Comcast to make sure that all students can access online materials.
However this week, Garcia tells SFR the district faces problems helping families access the Internet Essentials service, partly because the service asks for a Social Security number in the application.
Though it does allow people to verify their information in other ways, the application still asks a customer to check a box stating that they do not have a Social Security number.
Garcia tells SFR the district has bought 300 in-home hotspots that it plans to distribute to families in need, and is setting up mobile community hotspots in areas that need it most. The district also plans to deploy school buses with internet as mobile hotspots where students can download lessons, and internet is accessible outside school buildings as well.
Cybermesa, the local internet provider contracted with the city to help set up some of the public hotspots, has also stopped cutting off service to those who cannot pay.
"We are trying to be accommodating and work with people as much as we can," says Cybermesa President Jane Hill.
Hill tells SFR the company is experiencing an increase in service calls from customers looking to upgrade their plans now that they must work and learn from home.
But the company is also losing revenue from businesses that have had to close their doors, and Cybermesa has stopped installing new equipment to avoid entering people's homes during the COVID-19 crisis, which effectively bars most new subscribers. Hill worries the small company will likely not be able to maintain service for people who are behind on their bills forever, and may need to negotiate payment plans down the line.
"What's important right now is that we are keeping people connected and we are keeping our employees and paying them," she says.
SFR spent a day putting some of Comcast's promises to the test.
We spent hours sitting outside shuttered Santa Fe businesses identified on Comcast's map of public Xfinity hotspots, trying to connect while different representatives gave vexingly different responses to basic questions over the phone.
After an hour of free internet, a pop-up box informed us that we would have to purchase a payment plan in order to keep using the service.
In a later email, a Comcast spokeswoman tells SFR "if a consumer is being asked to pay for additional time they are most likely logged onto a residential hotspot, which are not a part of our COVID-19 open access." Despite these reassurances, we still can't connect.
But the 60 days of free service with the Xfinity Internet Essentials can't be beat. The offer only extends to new Comcast customers who do not already have a service plan with the company, and is only open until April 30. To qualify, you have to be enrolled in a government assistance program such as SNAP, free school lunch programs, or Medicaid. A full list of eligible programs can be found at the Internet Essentials website. According to Comcast, the company will ship a self-installation kit for free.
After the first 60 days are up, Internet Essentials costs $9.95 a month.