CHARLES TOWN — Does $10 make up for five days without internet access?
It’s a tricky question as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and some students are forced to learn from home — by logging into classrooms virtually — while their parents earn a living one room over by doing the same thing — working on assignments and completing tasks for their day job via a connection to the internet.
But what if that connection isn’t there, and everything from school to work is thrown into jeopardy? And what if nearly a week after the connection first disappears, you turn on your computer to find it’s still absent?
Such is the story of a neighborhood in Jefferson County, right over the Berkeley County line, off Shepherd Grade Road. Frontier Communications is the sole internet provider for the area, and to many residents, it’s been a headache since the corporation first came to town.
Just ask Angela Steffey, who explained in a recent interview that, along with her neighbors, she has been without internet access in her home since Thursday evening. Because she works entirely from home now, the outage has hit harder than it has before, when, for instance, a global pandemic wasn’t a factor.
“Today, I had to take off, and I had to take leave the last time, too,” she explained while referencing the last time her Frontier-provided internet went out for four days in October. “It’s a funny walk, because if you let your employer know, they may try to make you come into work, and you don’t really want to take the chance of being exposed, so it’s a tricky gambit, because we’re all trying to stay employed.”
As a result, Steffey has grown into the routine of sitting on friends’ porches to use their internet while also maintaining social distancing. The approach has become arduous, she said, because as colder weather moves in, staying warm has become harder than she anticipated.
Still, as though it’s any consolation, she received $10 back for her troubles the last time a Frontier technician visited her home. The money, which typically amounts to only $3.20, is given to residents who experience the outages and frustrations that come along with having no internet in the modern day. As for what led to her receiving a $6.80 bonus this time around?
“The guy told me he was feeling generous,” Steffey noted with a pinch of disgust. “It wouldn’t be so bad, but we don’t have any other option. Everyone would have left by now, but Frontier has a monopoly in this area.”
Struggling to learnIn a statement to The Journal Monday night, Javier Mendoza, vice president for corporate communications and external affairs at Frontier said, “Our systems indicate that Frontier service in the area is operating normally. In the event specific customers are experiencing a service disruption, we will respond promptly to service requests.”
By Tuesday morning, Steffey reiterated that her neighborhood still didn’t have internet access while one of her neighbors, Debbie Miller, struggled with an entirely new conflict: Getting her kids to school.
With services still out Tuesday morning, Miller didn’t work, thus allowing her to take her kids, one in eighth grade and the other a senior in high school, to community hot spots where the internet is free and available for kids to use to attend classes. Should the outage continue into today, however, she wasn’t sure how she would proceed.
“I’m going to send their teachers text messages tonight,” Miller said, “but if the internet isn’t up tomorrow, I don’t know what happens. I know there are hot spots in Jefferson County, but how are my kids going to get there if I’m working?”
The issue was discussed in a meeting Tuesday morning, according to Hans Fogle, public information officer for Jefferson County Schools. While he acknowledged Tuesday that the situation is fluid, he stressed that the schools are doing all they can to help accommodate families who need help with internet access.
“A lot of phone calls are coming in from concerned parents,” he said, “and we are directing people to our website, where all community hot spots are available. We also might be providing paper packets, and we have partnered with various businesses to open their Wi-Fi, so students can maybe sit in their parking lots and access their networks.
“Any time you have a hindrance like this, it’s a concern,” he added. “That’s why we’ve tried to be proactive to provide alternative access to students. It’s going to be an ongoing discussion, and there’s always going to be a certain amount of unpredictability.”
Steffey, for her part, isn’t sure that the outage won’t have a lasting effect on students as the plan for schooling nationwide continues to fluctuate with every new COVID-19 case.
“Some neighbors have three or four children that cannot do school work because of this,” she said. “I don’t know how lenient the school is going to be, but everyone at this point has to be flexible.”
‘It’s just crazy’Perhaps an internet outage such as this wouldn’t be as affecting if it weren’t for two things: One, the world has grown increasingly reliable on the internet as the coronavirus tightens its stranglehold on the country, and two, this isn’t the first time Frontier customers have experienced something like this.
Christine Williams has been living in the neighborhood for about a decade, and in an interview Tuesday afternoon, she noted how she, along with her neighbors, has grown used to dealing with internet issues for as long as her household has used Frontier.
“It happens all the time, but when you have kids who have be in class every day, it’s harder now,” Williams said. “We’ve tried to get Comcast to come into the neighborhood, and if we can get anything else, we would all switch. It’s a constant issue, and it needs to be fixed.
“The Frontier people don’t seem to know what they’re doing,” she continued. “We haven’t seen any trucks in the neighborhood, and it’s been five days. We keep getting texts saying the internet is back on, but it’s not. My husband is a disabled veteran, and we do everything on the internet now for his medical appointments. It’s just crazy.”
Mendoza said, via phone on Tuesday, that his systems were not showing any outages or a disruption to the services in the area. While he said he would continue to look into it, he did note that because it’s a rural area, it could be tough for them to pinpoint where the issue is.
Miller, meanwhile, was adamant that even after the problem is resolved, she’s wary about what the future may hold, considering the company’s track record of letting her neighborhood down.
“In two to three weeks, we’ll be right back to where we are,” she said. “It’s constantly down for whatever reason. I’ve lived here for 14 years, and this is a common occurrence. It’s constantly out or it’s so slow. I pay for high speed, but it’s definitely not high speed.”
And what does she pay for that high-speed Internet? $45 a month, nearly eight times the amount Steffey received from a Frontier employee as a make-good because he was “feeling generous.” Was it gracious enough to ensure warmth as the weather evolves from autumn to winter?
Not for Steffey.
“Tomorrow,” she admitted dejectedly, “I’ll have to sit on another cold porch.”
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