Getting Residents Online in a Pandemic Crisis

April 8, 2020 - (6 min read)

NLC held a webinar on this topic on Thursday, April 2. Click here to download the recording of the webinar.

As of this writing, most Americans are currently under a state or local order restricting movement. Thousands of schools, workplaces, and community and religious centers have closed for extended to limit the spread of COVID-19. During this time, residents have been asked to learn, work, worship, access healthcare, and socialize from home using technology – but too many of them are unable to do so. Too many households lack in-home broadband, either because the infrastructure does not exist where they live, because the options are too slow to support modern tools like videoconferencing, or because they can’t afford to subscribe. In response, federal, state, local, and private actors are taking steps to try and get these households connected as soon as possible.

When working to connect your residents to broadband, devices, and support, it is important to ensure the opportunities you provide for people to connect center around safety and equity. Provide information in multiple languages so that it is equally available to everyone in the community. Consider hiring trusted community messengers to help spread important information about safe access to community networks and programs.

Help Your Residents Access Free and Low-Cost Broadband Plans

The nation’s largest internet service providers, as well as many smaller ones, offer discounted internet subscriptions, and have expanded these offerings in light of the crisis. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance maintains a list of free and low-cost offerings geared towards community leaders and digital inclusion practitioners, while EveryoneOn has published a service locator tool that can be shared directly with residents. Many of these programs are intended to work in tandem with the federal low-income Lifeline subsidy program to pay for the service, and eligible residents can enroll through their ISP.

Reach out to the ISPs in your community to verify their offerings and find out how you can share information about availability and enrollment through city communications. Residents are likeliest to take advantage of subsidies and discounts if they find out about them through trusted venues. Since traditional sources for trusted information sharing, such as church gatherings, libraries and community events, are temporarily suspended, you may need to be creative. Consider partnering with your local school districts to share information about internet access through flyers distributed at lunch and breakfast pick-ups.

Help Residents Access Free Devices

Even if your residents have a fixed home broadband service or mobile hotspot, they may not have devices to connect to the internet with. Your community may already have nonprofit organizations devoted to refurbishing and distributing used computers for households in need, such as the Midwest-based PCs for People. Local leaders should collaborate with these organizations to connect residents in need with devices they can use. In light of social distancing guidelines, your local refurbisher may also offer a curbside option, so that residents can pick up a refurbished, sanitized laptop without needing to enter a store front or warehouse. Local refurbishers may be able to partner with your local school lunch distribution or Meals on Wheels deliveries to get laptops and other devices to the households who have requested them.

If you have businesses in your community eager to help, you can connect them with the Cristina Foundation, which serves as a national clearinghouse between companies with decommissioned computers and refurbishers in need of new supplies.

Leverage Public Wi-Fi Options

Cities across the country have often witnessed the crowds that gather at restaurants, libraries, and parks that offer free Wi-Fi when testing time draws near. Now that many of those free Wi-Fi providers have shuddered and schools are closed, students, their families, and others with low-grade or no wi-fi option will be looking for free ways to access to internet. As a city leader, you can be thinking creatively about how to keep as many free Wi-Fi locations available to your community.

If your community has its own public networks, expand those existing networks to encourage social distancing. If possible, inward facing networks for closed public buildings and parks should be turned outward to parking areas and nearby residences to allow residents to access them while at a safe distance. In addition, consider establishing new networks in areas with little or no connectivity like low income housing developments. This will require developing adequate infrastructure to support the new networks, including appropriate backhaul capacity and Wi-Fi hot spots.

Regardless of your strategy for increasing connectivity, think about how to ensure the network is used safely for the highest purpose. In some cases, gaming and high-quality video streaming may reduce network speed. You may ask free device providers to limit certain content to encourage safe use and prevent clogging the network. Additionally, consider providing template policies to houses of worship, non-profits, and other partners who may be willing to turn their networks public to increase community access.

Prepare to provide technical support to residents who need information about how to access the network or may need help troubleshooting a device concern. Develop protocols with your 311 department if an individual calls with questions. Think creatively about how to enlist the help of volunteers, students, or other partners to fill technical support needs.

Partner with the Private Sector

Hundreds of ISPs have committed to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge to not terminate residential or small business service for nonpayment, waive late fees, and open wi-fi hotspots publicly for the next 60 days. Many ISPs have gone above and beyond that pledge to suspend data caps, increase speeds, and directly support local connectivity projects in schools and communities. Check with your local providers to confirm that they have signed on to the pledge, as well as any additional measures they may be taking to support your community. In particular, consider asking ISPs and other businesses to cover parking lots of closed businesses or other areas where residents can access them at a safe distance.

Connect with Your State Leadership

Most states have a designated broadband leader, usually in the governor’s office, in charge of overall state broadband planning. During the pandemic, some state broadband leaders have responded by developing tools specifically geared towards emergency broadband access and affordability. You can access a list of state broadband contacts via the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s State Broadband Leaders Network. Contact your state’s broadband leadership to find out what additional state resources may be available to your community.

About the Authors:



Angelina Panettieri is the Legislative Manager for Information Technology and Communications at the National League of Cities. Follow her on twitter at @AngelinainDC.

SR Stacy Richardson is the Program Director for Urban Innovation at the National League of Cities.