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Georgia Dept. of Ed., Verizon Launch Internet Discount Program

A new contract with Verizon allows state and local government agencies in Georgia and 12 other states to purchase devices and service plans at a steep discount and provide those to constituents in need.

The Verizon logo on the outside of a building.
With many school districts now back in session and COVID-19 cases on the rise, the state of Georgia faces the possibility of shutdowns and remote learning again this year. Even for districts that avoid that outcome, the demand for hybrid or remote learning options isn’t going away, nor are digital classroom materials. Recognizing home Internet access as an essential utility for students and families with or without the pandemic, the state’s Department of Education has partnered with Verizon on a discount program to get service plans and devices to as many households as possible through state and local agencies.

According to the department’s IT Director Chris Shealy, a new contract this month expands upon Verizon’s distance learning program for K-12 districts established in April 2020. Other government agencies, such as housing authorities or the higher education-focused Board of Regents, can now use federal funds to purchase devices, service plans and hot spots for their constituents at a steep discount.

Shealy said his department is the lead on the contract and initiated talks for the distance learning program last spring, when it started to become clear that in-person classes were over for that year and possibly the next.

“I made a plea to all the telecommunication providers across the state and asked them for assistance, because all the plans were just so high. Even state contracts were too high for school districts to be able to purchase off of,” he said. “All of a sudden, the three big carriers in the state started rolling offers in … they kept going down, and we ended up with service plans on the K-12 agreement for $15 a month, for a complete package, which includes filtering (pursuant to the Children’s Internet Protection Act).”

According to a news release, the program is also open to government agencies and nonprofits in 12 other states across the Southeast and East Coast, including Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Verizon’s Vice President of Public Sector Sales Patty Roze said last year’s digital inclusion program was open to 38 million students in 41 states, and she summed up use cases for the new agreement in three categories: family members of K-12 students who participated in last year’s program; housing authorities; and workforce training or employment agencies. She said state and local agencies can use money from the American Rescue Plan Act to buy and administer service plans and devices for families, although exact qualifications and how the funds are allocated will vary by agency.

Regardless, Roze said parties in both the private and public sectors are making such an effort to get families online because they know it’s a critical investment in the future.

“Technology has seen massive transformation and acceleration over the past 15, 16, 17 months. I’ve been in this business for 21 years. I’ve never seen this level of acceleration and moving as quickly as we have moved since the pandemic started, so it’s really quite fascinating,” she said. “Even once we’re on the other side of this pandemic, we’ll continue to see this level of technology transformation, because we know that we’re capable of moving that fast now. Some of the state and local agencies are moving much quicker than they have historically, so I think that pace will continue.”

Shealy was likewise optimistic. He said his department is preparing an additional program, as a supplement or alternative to Verizon’s, to make sure the estimated 49,000 students in Georgia who live in low-income housing have Internet for the next three years.

“We’re trying to make sure we hit all of our student population for sure,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, it’s been a big conversation for a long time, and now we’re actually seeing movement, so I feel good about it.”
Andrew Westrope is managing editor of the Center for Digital Education. Before that, he was a staff writer for Government Technology, and previously was a reporter and editor at community newspapers. He has a bachelor’s degree in physiology from Michigan State University and lives in Northern California.