Stay-at-home orders around the world during the coronavirus have helped slow the spread of the pandemic. Staying connected while staying home has been easy for some, but more difficult for others. With most offices and schools closed, employees and students have relied heavily on home internet connections to continue working, learning, and socializing, leading to an 80% surge in Wi-Fi® upload traffic.
Even before COVID-19 changed the way we live, work, and communicate, only about half the world’s population had access to the internet. Digital collaboration has become a definitive advantage in modern society, and access to the internet has only become more critical in times of social distancing. Recognizing the importance of online connectivity, many companies, governments, and local organizations around the world have harnessed the power of Wi-Fi to help bridge the digital divide to ensure their communities are able to remain economically, academically, and socially healthy during this crisis–and well into the future.
Service provider Wi-Fi initiatives
Service providers were among the first to take action during the early days of the pandemic–many of them Wi-Fi Alliance® members. In the U.S., major Wi-Fi providers such as AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast eliminated late fees, provided free access to Wi-Fi hotspots, and rolled out low-cost internet programs to help families across the country remain connected.
In Europe, many service providers have taken similar initiatives. The Belgian internet service provider, Proximus, also announced unlimited home internet use for its customers, while various telecom companies in the UK, including Vodafone and Virgin media, also increased data caps for customers.
Public-private partnership Wi-Fi initiatives
While many companies have independently undertaken initiatives to ensure customers remain connected, there has also been extensive collaboration between the private and public sectors to empower more individuals to harness the power of the internet in these trying times.
In the U.S., the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) encouraged companies to sign the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, an initiative designed to ensure that Americans do not lose their broadband or telephone connectivity as a result of these exceptional circumstances. Almost 800 companies have signed the pledge since it was introduced in March.
In Mexico, the Telecomunicaciones de México (TELECOMM) in collaboration with Hughes Network Systems, plans to roll out Wi-Fi hotspots in over 4,000 rural communities.
In the Caribbean, the government of the Dominican Republic has created online educational tools for students who are no longer able to physically attend classes, and are also creating free Wi-Fi hotspots to provide students with access to learning resources.
In Africa, the Zambian telecom company, Liquid Talk, has installed free Wi-Fi hotspots at COVID-19 quarantine centers run by the Ministry of Public Health in an effort to help patients and healthcare workers remain connected to their relatives. Meanwhile, in West Africa, the Ghana Chamber of Telecommunications is working closely with the National Communications Authority and the Ministry of Communications to ensure residents have access to internet service.
In Europe, major telecommunications providers in the U.K. have also pledged to help healthcare workers, with companies such as BT/EE, Openreach, Sky, talktalk, and O2 pledging to upgrade broadband speeds for healthcare workers in the National Health Service (NHS) to support the increased number of remote consultations required during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Italy, the government launched a Digital Solidarity campaign with resources to keep Italians working, learning, and entertained during the country’s lockdown. The Italian government – similar to actions by the FCC in the U.S. – also encouraged companies to offer free online services, such as online newspapers, faster internet and access to e-learning platforms to help residents remain connected at home while stringent social distancing measures were in place.
In China, more than 200 million students simultaneously began learning online when the coronavirus pandemic began. To ensure students across the country had access to online resources, the Ministry of Education partnered with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology to encourage major telecom service providers to boost internet connectivity service for online education, especially for under-served regions.
Community-based Wi-Fi initiatives
While many national governments have recognized that providing access to Wi-Fi empowers their citizens to continue participating economically, academically, and socially through the pandemic, local governments and organizations have also done their part to help under-served members of their communities remain connected.
State and municipal governments around the world have created resources to help residents find Wi-Fi connections, or have provided free access to Wi-Fi hotspots themselves. According to the non-profit, Digital Inclusion, over half of all U.S. states have provided resources to help residents access the internet during the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, multiple city governments in the U.S. have provided resources to help residents remain connected, including New Orleans, Louisiana, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Chattanooga, Tennessee.
In the U.K., several municipal governments, such as those in Bradford, Rochdale, and York, are offering residents free Wi-Fi at public buildings, such as libraries, leisure centers, museums, and parks.
Schools and universities have also done their part to provide connectivity solutions to students and teachers while their campuses are closed. In the U.S., school districts serving primary and secondary students across the country have used Wi-Fi to provide internet access to under-served populations. Universities have also stepped up, with some opening their campus Wi-Fi networks to free use for the public.
Libraries have served as connectivity hubs in their communities, and recently the Public Library Association announced it would partner with Microsoft to expand internet access in rural areas by installing Wi-Fi access points on or near library grounds across the country.
Non-profits and trade associations have also launched Wi-Fi initiatives to help constituents stay connected. In Palo Alto, California, one non-profit, Tech Access, started the “COVID-19 Internet Accessibility” program to help families pay for internet access while children are forced to attend classes remotely. In Germany, a trade organization launched an initiative to connect stranded seafarers to their loved ones, providing 400 prepaid mobile phone cards and 25 Wi-Fi boxes to seafarers for use on ships while stranded in German seaports.
Wi-Fi around the world
The inherent strengths of Wi-Fi – its affordability, ubiquity, and ease-of-use – make it a powerful communications tool that is enabling companies and communities around the world to harness the power of Wi-Fi to ensure their customers, citizens, and constituents remain connected. Wi-Fi helps deliver a sense of community during this pandemic, even if we are far apart.
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