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Internet Options for Students on Low Income

Taylor Leamey

Feature Writer

7 min. read

The Internet Isn’t Optional

The internet is no longer a service that’s useful to have. It’s a necessity, especially for students of all levels. Many schools embrace technology in and out of the classroom and even provide students with the hardware to complete assignments. While this addresses one issue, it entirely ignores another: internet connection. According to a federal study, 70% of American teachers assign homework that has to be completed online and 90% of students report they are given online assignments at least a few times a month. This becomes problematic when you factor in that 15% of the households with high school-aged children lack a high-speed internet connection, as reported by the Pew Research Center U.S. census data.

Lack of Internet Creates a Barrier to Education

Accessibility

In the United States, two in three teachers use technology in their classrooms, and it’s not hard to see why. Technology is a convenient way to assign work and can provide access to various resources that enhance students’ academic experience. For students of low-income families, the classroom’s dependence on technology poses an issue not considered by teachers and policymakers. The average cost of internet is around $60 a month, which is not an affordable option for many.

Thankfully, families can save sometimes as much as $50a month through government-funded programs and options from internet service providers. These options are generally underused, oftentimes because families are not aware of them.

Public internet use

Some students turn to public internet use to complete the required online assignments. While using a library‘s or a restaurant’s WiFi is an option for some, students who don’t live close to a hub like that would have to regularly pay transportation fees to get there. Depending on how long it takes them to get somewhere with an internet connection, it could take up a large chunk of the time they could spend studying. What happens if they forgot something at home? What if they forget to turn something in and already are back home? Having internet access in their home takes away the stress of last-minute changes to a project or the need to scramble to find WiFi to turn something in.

Data privacy on public WiFi

12% of students say they use public WiFi to complete homework. It can be risky to use public WiFi, as the security on these networks is generally relaxed if present at all. Data security should always be a concern when connecting to an unprotected public network. Some of the risks associated with blindly using public networks are:

  • Malicious hotspots: To unsuspecting users, malicious hotspots seem like legitimate networks. Though once connected, attackers have access to any information you’ve entered on webpages – like your login information or personal data.
  • Unencrypted networks: Secure networks are encrypted, meaning any information sent between your computer and router are “encoded” so that no one can read it. By default, routers are shipped with the encryption turned off and it must intentionally be turned on. When dealing with public networks, you cannot be sure if it’s enabled or not.
  • Man-in-the-middle attacks (MitM): This common threat makes what you thought was private available to attackers. Your computer communicates with the website you are accessing and in a MitM attack, an attacker intercepts and can even alter your communications.

Mobile hotspots

While mobile hotspots allow users to share their phone’s internet connection and connect devices to it, your phone’s mobile hotspot is an inadequate long-term substitute for home internet. Though it’s a great tool for every once in a while, generally hotspots are slow and inconsistent. Hotspots use your phone’s data and depending on your phone plan, this can become expensive. Home internet offers an opportunity to avoid overage fees and free up your phone’s data, and you could even decrease your data plan if you are not reliant on your for internet access.

Challenges for students

1-to-1 laptop initiatives are the start of addressing the technological barrier present in schools. Half of U.S. teachers have one device for each of their students. However, 17% of students say they often or sometimes can’t complete the tasks assigned to them because they don’t have reliable access to the internet, regardless of having a computer or not.

Some research supports that teens who don’t have access to the internet are less likely to graduate from high school, compared to the students who do. A contributing factor could be that the lack of home internet creates obstacles for parent-teacher interaction. Technology provides an easy way to set up conferences and communicate with your student’s teacher through email. Parents without internet may have a harder time monitoring their child’s grades and talking to their children’s teachers.

Internet Programs for Low-Income Students

The type of assignment at hand will place different levels of stress on your internet. For example, using email or basic computer functions may only use around 3-4 Mbps, though video calls for group projects require at least 10 Mbps. College students who collaboratively work on Google drive require adequate internet speed to edit, upload, and download files that are required for their courses. Long papers or media-intensive projects will take longer than average to upload, so making sure your internet can handle it is imperative to college success.

Addressing what your household internet use will be and what your student’s needs are will help you pick the best internet service for you. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) suggests that households with multiple users and frequent online streaming choose plans that support internet speeds of 12-25 Mbps. Assess the following assistance programs in terms of their speed, price, and how they relate to your needs.

Government-funded programs and nonprofits

EveryoneOn

EveryoneOn is a nonprofit that connects low-income families with affordable internet options through their provider partnerships. Since 2012 they have helped more than 700,000 people find an internet option that fits their needs. Not only are they a great resource, but they also offer digital skill training classes and help families get computers. EveryoneOn does not directly offer internet services, but you can use their offer locator tool to find internet options in your community.

Lifeline

Lifeline offers a discount of $9.25 a month on either your phone or internet costs for families that are at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines. The discount is limited to one service only. If you are interested in applying for Lifeline, you must apply through the National Verifier application system. This centralized system is used to verify the eligibility of the applicant and then recertify their qualifications yearly. The national verifier will allow you to choose a phone or internet option and sign up for a company’s services within 90 days of applying. Programs that qualify for Lifeline:

  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
  • Federal Public Housing Assistance (EPHA)
  • Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Tribal assistance programs for Lifeline:

  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
  • Tribally Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
  • Head Start

Human I-T

Human I-T is a nonprofit that has partnered with Frontier Communications and its Affordable Broadband program. Instead of recycling electronics, Human I-T reuses donated technology to close the digital divide. They offer an affordable internet connection of 18 Mbps at $14.99 per month. To qualify you must participate in at least one of the following:

  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
  • National School Lunch Program (NSLP)
  • Section 8 voucher
  • Medicaid
  • Supplemental Security Income

Provider programs

Government-funded programs are not your only option. Many internet providers have low-income options that will help you secure reliable internet in your home. Most do require that you take part in at least one federal assistance program to qualify. Here are the most common options and details of what they offer.

How To Save Money If You Don’t Qualify

Unless you are already participating in a low-income assistance program, it’s unlikely you’ll be approved for these special internet deals. So what about families who don’t qualify? Thankfully, there are still tricks you can do to save money on your internet bill and ways to reduce costs.

Additional things you can do to save money:

  • Buy your own router. Providers charge $5-$10 a month to rent your equipment, which surpasses the price of a router.
  • Read your bill carefully to catch any mistakes or instances where you can cut back
  • Shop around for other options and arm yourself with competitor prices
  • Negotiate your current plan with your provider
  • Take advantage of bundle offers, if you can.
  • Assess your internet speed and make sure it lines up with what you’re paying for.
  • Opt for slower options if you don’t utilize the high-speed perks.

The Bottom Line

Having an internet connection is a vital part of your student’s success. Mobile hotspots and trips to the library are unreliable ways for students to complete work and turn in assignments. The programs and services available through local providers and the government ease the burden of needing something you can’t afford.

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