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Back to school: Internet access is essential these days, and yes, there are affordable options

These days, it's hard to get a proper education if you're not online.Globe staff photo illustration; Adobe stock

Broadband Internet access probably isn’t on your back-to-school shopping list, because three-quarters of US households are already wired. But what about families that aren’t?

About 15 percent of households with school-age children do not have Internet access at home, according to the Pew Internet Center.

And these days, it’s tough to keep up in school without it.

Many parents can’t afford the usual broadband services. But there are alternatives, including several that might surprise you. So here’s a back-to-school shopping list to get those children online, at minimal cost.

First, check out the options offered by your public schools. The Boston, Brockton, New Bedford, and Springfield school systems, for example, have teamed up with the 1Million Project, a nonprofit founded by the former chief executive of Sprint Corp. The organization aims to provide Internet access to 1 million US high school students, through the use of 4G devices that connect to the Sprint network.

Low-income families get a free wireless hot spot or a smartphone that can share the 4G signal with computers or other phones.


In addition, users get 10 gigabits of 4G data service per month and unlimited free data at a much lower 2G speed.

Depending on the quality of the reception, these connections can provide decent to very fast Internet service.

Once approved for the program, a student can keep using it for his or her entire time in high school. Those who attend participating school systems can apply for the 1Million program by contacting their high schools.

For some people, the public library is the Internet provider of last resort. No wonder that library Wi-Fi is often slow. But the Boston Public Library is working to upgrade its services, installing new wireless access points at all branch libraries. The new devices should be capable of handling up to 200 simultaneous users, meaning less congestion and faster downloads.


And for students who would rather work at home, the library lends out 4G data hot spots that connect to the T-Mobile cellular network and offer unlimited data. The library has about 200 hot spots and lends them out for three weeks at a time — but with no renewals. At any given time, most of them are checked out.

The BPL’s chief technology officer, Kurt Mansperger, said the library is seeking funds to expand the hot spot loan program. In the meantime, you can log onto the library’s website,, to see if a hot spot is available, or ask the library to hold the next available one for you.

Comcast has offered broadband to low-income families for $9.95 per month since 2011. Its Internet Essentials program includes Internet service with a maximum speed of 15 megabits per second — relatively slow, but ample for doing an online quiz or streaming a training video. Subscribers get a Wi-Fi router for wireless access throughout the home.

When the program began, eligibility was limited to households with children who receive free school lunches through a federal program. It has expanded over time, and about 59,000 of Massachusetts’ 2.4 million households now take part.

This year, Comcast extended the program to cover those who receive benefits from a host of federal assistance programs: Medicaid, SNAP food assistance, and Supplementary Security Income, among others. A Comcast spokesman, Marc Goodman, said that under the new criteria, one in four Massachusetts households, or about 600,000, are now eligible. Find out more at


Internet access is no good without a digital device. So Internet Essentials also offers an option to purchase a used, refurbished computer or laptop for just $150. Since even the cheapest new computer will cost at least twice that much, it’s a pretty good deal.

Comcast also has an alliance with Tech Goes Home, a nonprofit that provides technology training classes at schools and community centers all over Boston. Low-income students or parents who complete 15 hours of training are eligible to purchase a new (not refurbished) Apple iPad tablet or a Lenovo or Hewlett-Packard Chromebook laptop for $50.

Chromebooks are cheap laptops that run software developed by Google. They don’t run Microsoft Windows but do support special versions of Microsoft Office apps like Word and Excel, as well as Google’s Office-like program Google Docs. Chromebooks contain all of the software that most students will ever need, which is why the nation’s public schools have purchased millions of them.

Another tech option, PCs For People, is a 20-year-old Minnesota-based nonprofit that has distributed more than 80,000 refurbished computers and provided Internet access for 30,000 families. PCs For People sells hot spots like those provided by the 1Million project. Alas, these must be paid for — but the $80 price tag isn’t overwhelming.

Users must also pay for 4G service, but at a discounted price of $16 a month or $135 a year, for unlimited data.


PCs For People also sells refurbished computers for as little as $50. For more information, go to

This article has been updated to reflect how Chromebooks are able to run versions of Microsoft Word and Excel.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.