If you ask Spectrum for its lowest internet price, you may not hear about this rate

When Charter Communications bought Time Warner Cable last year it promised to continue offering a low-cost internet service in North Carolina. Charter operates under the Spectrum brand in North Carolina.
When Charter Communications bought Time Warner Cable last year it promised to continue offering a low-cost internet service in North Carolina. Charter operates under the Spectrum brand in North Carolina. Charter Communications

Low-income residents in the Triangle can receive $14.99 basic internet service from Spectrum. But only if they know to ask for it.

When Charter Communications bought Time Warner Cable last year, the Connecticut-based cable giant promised to continue offering the low-cost service in 41 states, including North Carolina.

But low-income people are not told about the service, called Spectrum Internet Assist. Advocates for the poor in the Triangle suspect that many households that are eligible for the discount are not getting it and unnecessarily paying about $40 a month more.

Meagan Clawar, a program manager with UNC’s Refugee Community Partnership, discovered the problem when helping an immigrant family in Chapel Hill negotiate an internet rate with Spectrum, the brand name Charter uses for its service. She has since found three more immigrant families who were not quoted Spectrum’s lowest rate and are either going without internet service or paying a higher price.

Clawar plans to tell low-income residents she works with how to sign up for the program, and will also be notifying public housing managers and social-service volunteers to spread the word to low-income tenants.

“If they’re not telling people, that’s wrong,” Clawar said. “I just thought it was a huge injustice.”

Clawar’s crash course started with old-fashioned haggling. On her first call to Spectrum’s customer service last week, Clawar asked for the lowest-cost internet available, and was cited $54.99. Clawar tried explaining this family of four, with one parent working a minimum-wage kitchen job, could not afford that amount.

When she found that a neighboring family had a lower Spectrum internet bill, she decided to try again.

On her second try, Clawar uttered the magic words, “public housing,” in reference to the family’s living arrangement. The phrase prompted Spectrum’s customer service representative to mention the Spectrum Internet Assist program.

Charter makes Spectrum Internet Assist available to eligible households whose children qualify for free or reduced lunches under the National School Lunch Program, and to low-income people aged 65 and older who receive Supplemental Security Income. Charter charges an extra $5 a month for Wi-Fi. Time Warner Cable had offered a similar program since 2003, called Everyday Low Price Internet, and Charter said it would continue offering its own version.

Charter spokesman Patrick Paterno said the program is available to customers if they specifically ask for it. But if someone who qualifies didn’t know to ask for it – and is paying too much as a result – Spectrum will not correct the error and switch that customer to the lower price, he said.

Instead, the customer has to cancel service and reapply 30 days later, which could also involve a $49.99 installation fee if they are unable to do the installation themselves. He noted that the 30-day waiting period was reduced from the previous limit of 60 days.

“We don’t market Spectrum Internet Assist broadly, as there are very specific eligibility requirements for families and seniors,” Paterno said by email.

Paterno also said the cable provider has recently held public outreach events in Durham, Fayetteville and Sumter, S.C., to promote Spectrum Internet Assist. The Durham event was held May 20 at the Kramden Institute, which trains low-income people on computer literacy. At the event Charter distributed about 60 refurbished computers to families in need.

Spectrum’s lowest prices for people who don’t qualify for Spectrum Internet Assist are $54.99 for stand-alone internet with a speed of 100 megabits per second (Mbps). The $14.99 service has a speed of 30 Mbps.

Clawar said $40 a month represents a significant savings for minimum-wage families with children. She also said an internet connection is no longer a discretionary expenditure but essential for homework, information and a link to the rest of the world.

Charter made a similar point in a December 2015 press release when committing to the $14.99 monthly service.

“Low-income families deserve state-of-the-art fast broadband as much as other families – indeed, they need fast broadband to climb out of poverty,” the release said. “This program seems to be a step in the right direction for improved economic conditions for minority and low-income communities.”

John Murawski: 919-829-8932, @johnmurawski