The US is going to a huge experiment in home schooling, and that’s going to leave a lot of Americans in a tough position. According to Pew Research Center, about 20 percent of Americans in the 30-64 age range who are most likely to have kids at home don’t have home broadband service. And although many of them may think their smartphones are good enough for many tasks, they may not be sufficient for essay writing or running PC-only educational software.
I know, you’re probably asking, “well, are people without internet going to read this article?” Maybe not. But maybe they’re your relatives or clients or friends, and you can pass some of this information (and maybe a few dollars) along. Here are some options for people who may be able to muster a laptop, but can’t otherwise get online.
Completely Free Wi-Fi (With No Installation)
The FCC’s Keep Americans Connected pledge challenges ISPs and mobile carriers to not shut off service for 60 days due to nonpayment, and to open their local Wi-Fi hotspots to free access. A huge number of ISPs have signed on, but when I went to their web sites, only a few had posted details about opening up their Wi-Fi hotspots.
If you’re a low-income student, the first thing you should do is look for a free, local Wi-Fi hotspot being emanated from somewhere outside your house. These hotspots used to be locked-down to broadband customers only, but now they will be free.
- Comcast Xfinity: Find the map at xfinity.com/wifi and look for the ‘xfinitywifi’ network
Your city or town may also have free or sponsored Wi-Fi. Here in New York, for example, we have the LinkNYC system in parts of the city. This page has a list of US cities with municipal Wi-Fi systems.
Are you a little too far from the hotspot? Look on Amazon for “long range Wi-Fi adapters for laptops” or “long range WiFi antennas,” which generally cost about $20-$50 and can extend your laptop’s Wi-Fi range. If you’re really handy, you can make a “cantenna” from a baby formula can, but you have to have a soldering iron for that.
The LinkNYC system has enough range to reach into some apartments.
Free Home Broadband (With Installation)
Cable internet service providers have volunteered to offer free broadband service to K-12 and college students for the next 60 days. If you don’t have broadband at home, call one of the following numbers to get hooked up as a new customer. Ask your neighbors which cable company serves your building or neighborhood, if you don’t know. Installing this service will take an appointment, and you should ask about hidden fees, such as taxes and modem rental.
- Comcast Xfinity (25Mbps): Call 855-846-8376 or go to internetessentials.com
- Cox (only 30 days service, requires that you be on public assistance, 25Mbps): Go to this Cox website
- Optimum (30Mbps): Call 866-200-9522
- Spectrum (100Mbps): Call 844-488-8395
- Suddenlink (30Mbps): Call 888-633-0030
Low-Cost 4G Internet Hotspots
If you have a smartphone, you probably have the ability to turn it into a Wi-Fi hotspot. Sprint and T-Mobile, but not AT&T or Verizon, have pledged to add unlimited smartphone data and 20GB of hotspot data to your existing plan for each of the next two months. Your existing plan may have anywhere from zero to 30GB or more; you need to ask your service provider.
20GB is not a lot of video streaming, unfortunately. Video conferencing uses approximately 3-4MB/minute, which is about 83 hours per month if you aren’t doing anything else at all (no gaming, no Netflix, etc.) Divide by two people online, and that’s unfortunately only about two hours a day online for each of them. So it makes sense to do as much video streaming as possible on your smartphone, where you will have unlimited data, as opposed to your laptop, where you won’t.
Verizon’s Visible has an interesting proposal, but you need to know the limits. For $40, the carrier gives you unlimited smartphone hotspot service across the whole nationwide Verizon LTE network. That’s great, but it only works at 5Mbps and to tether one device at a time. So it would only be good for families with one student or worker who needs to get online at a time, and you need a compatible phone.
If you don’t have a smartphone, or need a solution that works for a whole household of devices when the smartphone is out of the house, get a prepaid dedicated hotspot. The hotspots I’m about to list aren’t on our list of Best Mobile Hotspots, which focuses on performance. They are much slower, but they are also much less expensive.
The MetroSmart hotspot isn’t the fastest, but it’s inexpensive.
The lowest-cost option is the $24.99 MetroSmart hotspot from Metro by T-Mobile, which will take advantage of an improved low-band LTE network powered by spectrum T-Mobile just borrowed from Dish, Comcast, and others. You should be able to get about a 10Mbps connection with this hotspot—enough for two decent-quality video streams. A $35/month plan gives you 10GB of data, plus your free extra 20GB.
If you have a little more money and Sprint coverage, you can get a lot more data with the $49.99 Coolpad Surf on Boost. Boost’s 50GB plan costs $50; it’s not clear if Sprint’s 20GB boost also applies to Boost.
The Logitech K580 keyboard will work with your phone.
Bonus: I Don’t Have a Laptop, Only a Phone
Can you do real schoolwork on only a phone? Depends on how nimble you are with your thumbs. The phone is a great tool for video conferencing, but not as good for Google Docs collaboration. But did you know your phone works with a Bluetooth keyboard? It’s true! The Logitech K580 costs $50 and has a slot to plunk your phone into. You connect it via Bluetooth just like a headset, and type on.