State officials announce public-private partnership to expand access to broadband services for students for the upcoming school year

SHERIDAN, CO (STL.News) Thousands of low-income student households in Colorado will get access to free and low-cost internet options for the 2020-21 school year, state leaders announced today at an event at Fort Logan Northgate School, a part of Sheridan School District 2.

As part of its nationwide effort to provide internet access to underserved students, called Project 10Million, T-Mobile will provide up to 34,000 low-income student households in Colorado with a free WiFi hotspot and 100GB of data per year for free.  Qualifying households will also have access to internet-enabled devices, such as tablets or computers, at a significant discount.  Households in the T-Mobile service area are eligible for the program based on student participation in the National School Lunch Program.

This effort fulfills one of T-Mobile’s commitments under an agreement reached last fall with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.  In October 2019, after previously joining a multistate lawsuit to block the Sprint-T-Mobile merger, the Attorney General’s Office negotiated a settlement in which T-Mobile committed to various actions that will increase broadband internet access for Coloradans, including providing free internet connectivity and equipment to households with school-age children.

In addition to T-Mobile, state leaders celebrated other provider efforts to provide low- and no-cost options for families, including Comcast’s Internet Essentials program and rural providers who stepped up to provide options for families from the Western slope to the Eastern plains.

“While most school districts in Colorado are now back to school in person, there are still some families and students who choose to learn remotely or live in school districts that haven’t resumed in-person classes yet,” said Governor Jared Polis.  “There are still too many students in Colorado that lack access to high-speed broadband at home to support their learning whatever form it takes.  This is why the State of Colorado, Attorney General Weiser, and Colorado Department of Education are taking steps today to help more families in Colorado have access to high-speed broadband.”

The Governor, Attorney General, and Commissioner Antes were joined by State Senator Jeff Bridges who represents Sheridan and is working at the state legislature to bridge the digital divide, a parent, faculty members, and school district Superintendent Pat Sandos.

“Now more than ever, expanding access to affordable broadband internet is necessary to ensure equitable online educational opportunities for all children in Colorado.  The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt our entire society, including our education system, which is working to provide opportunities for online learning,’” said Weiser.  “Given the existing lack of access to broadband for many students, the WiFi hotspots provided by T-Mobile and $2 million from the Colorado Department of Education will meet a critical need and be felt immediately by school-aged children throughout Colorado.  This will help to narrow the homework gap.”

Weiser also announced that the State is filing a petition urging the Federal Communications Commission to temporarily waive some restrictions on its E-Rate Program to allow schools to extend their broadband internet networks to students’ homes for educational purposes and to allow E-Rate funds to be directed to support Wi-Fi hotspots or other broadband connections for students. If successful, this change would allow millions of dollars in support for school districts to provide access to Wi-Fi hotspots or other mechanisms that connect students to vital home learning opportunities.

Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes announced the Department of Education will distribute $2 million from the emergency federal funding set aside for state-level activities from the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Securities (CARES) Act to help school districts provide broadband access to low-income families.

“Our educators are working incredibly hard to support all of their students so they can continue to feel connected to school and access rigorous educational content during this pandemic, but we know that our success in providing equitable opportunities to all students hinges on the ability of students to access broadband services,” Anthes said.  “The $2 million from our federal emergency funding along with the generous commitment from our broadband providers will make a meaningful and lasting difference in students’ lives.”

According to the School District Community Needs Inventory conducted by the Colorado Department of Education and Colorado Education Initiative last spring, more than 65,000 students in Colorado lacked internet access.

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