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Broadband providers around the state are offering free services, suspending disconnections and switching up how installations work as the coronavirus crisis makes home internet increasingly crucial.
“We are a nonprofit; we have a mission to bring service to people who are underserved or unserved,” said Chris Recchia, managing director of ValleyNet, which runs the ECFiber broadband network in east central Vermont. “And this just fed into this — on steroids.”
Entities like Recchia’s, VTel in southern Vermont and national-level outfits have all responded to the Covid-19 pandemic with accommodations for schools, families and entire communities that need increased access while working or learning at home.
To help students in Rutland, VTel and telecom company Ericsson installed approximately 100 new radios and antennas for free on a building downtown in late March.
Then the partners provided approximately the same number of routers to families lacking resources, so that they could connect to the newly installed devices.
“We like that kids that are among the least advantaged are getting some of the best wireless speeds in America right now,” said VTel president Michel Guite, explaining that the Rutland devices use newer 4G/5G technology.
Guite said VTel has offered another 100 devices to school boards across the state, for districts that are on the company’s fiber grid or have strong wireless connections. And the company offered to buy devices for school districts that would allow them to provide wifi on buses, he said, but few so far have been interested.
Consolidated Communications has been working with schools across northern New England to connect low-income families with students with two months of free home internet, said spokesperson Shannon Sullivan.
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Comcast in March offered free internet through mid-May for low-income customers and raised that program’s speeds to the federal broadband minimum; made its Xfinity hotspots free to use; paused its data plans for 60 days; and lifted fees for nearly 2,000 hours of educational programming.
Charter Communications, which provides the Spectrum internet brand, is also offering free internet service until mid-May to households with educators or students — though the program does not cover existing customers or people with outstanding bills on old accounts.
Both VTel and ECFiber have told customers they won’t be disconnected from services if they can’t pay, at least through the end of the school year.
“If somebody needs us, we’re here to help, and we’ll figure out the details after Covid-19 is over,” Guite said.
ECFiber is also, through June, offering free installations and service to new customers with school-age kids eligible for lunch assistance and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. The offer applies to aerial installations only — not underground ones.
“That has generated people calling us, and we’re doing the installations as quickly as we can to try to help those people because … internet is an essential utility,” said Recchia.
Both local providers are working on community hotspots for people who can’t connect at home. Guite said VTel has offered to install free wireless transmitters for 294 towns. He said the company had recently begun rolling out the first 50.
Some local hotspots set up by ECFiber already existed before the crisis forced people to stay home, said Recchia.
But “a lot of our places that we were doing are coffeehouses and things like that that just can’t be open right now,” he said.
He said his nonprofit is checking to see which of those places have kept their wireless on and whether it can be accessed by parking outside.
The two local providers have adapted their installation policies in different ways.
Guite said his 17 truck workers are no longer allowed to enter homes for installations, unless there’s an emergency. That’s caused problems at some residences where signals are strong outside but weak inside, so VTel has to say no.
But in some cases, he said his workers have been able to rig antennae with cable long enough to reach inside through a window. “It’s not perfect, but it worked,” he said.
ECFiber’s seven field workers are still doing full installations — 64 in the past two weeks, Recchia said.
But they’re coming with heavy restrictions.
Recchia said the provider asks customers if everyone in the home is healthy and whether anyone has travelled outside the state recently. In some cases, ECFiber has postponed appointments.
He said his group calls customers back the day before an appointment to make sure everything is still the same, to ask them to wipe down surfaces and maintain social distancing when the installer comes.
The installation workers have masks and gloves — as do those for VTel — as well as hand sanitizer.
“With this level of control, I feel like we’re going to be able to navigate this safely for our staff and for the customers,” he said.
Both sets of workers are wearing standard dust and protective masks, the outlet heads said, not the specialized N-95 masks sought by health care workers.
Consolidated workers are taking similar measures, Sullivan said.
Providers expressed optimism about their response so far. and the significance of bolstering internet access.
“We feel when this crisis is over — and it will be over — confident we can say we did as much as we could,” Guite said.
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