Taking Action: Internet voucher for Jackson County student first denied by internet provider, will now be honored

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JACKSON COUNTY, Ala – Alabama families with students in the free or reduced lunch program received free internet vouchers from the state. Families are supposed to be able to call a partnering internet service provider to redeem them.

But one Jackson County mom said her daughter’s voucher was rejected.

“Why do they have to suffer from things they can’t control?” asked Jodie Hill. Hill said her daughter’s voucher was denied by North Alabama Electric Cooperative.

“She informed me that we couldn’t get the free internet due to a past-due bill from 2016,” Hill explained. News 19 examined the problem and took action after Hill called us and appears to have found a resolution. Here’s what happened:

The vouchers were distributed by the Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students program, an effort through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

Hill’s daughter is a sophomore at Skyline High School. She’s also enrolled in online college classes. Her family doesn’t have internet at home right now, so they viewed the state voucher as an unexpected, but welcome blessing.

“My daughter is already stressed out about how she’s gonna keep up,” Hill said. “It’s, ‘Take me to a friend’s house with internet,’ or, ‘Can I go to the school parking lot and use their wifi?'”

COVID-19 has had a big impact on many families. Hill said she’s had to prioritize her family’s bills. She said it’s likely other families who qualify for the internet assistance, have done the same.

“If they’re giving vouchers to people who are in a $40,000 or less income range a year, those are the people who have unpaid bills,” said Hill. “I mean, we just are.”

News 19 asked the state about the voucher’s denial. We were sent a statement by the ABC program that reads in part:

The ABC for Students program cannot require the providers to accept vouchers from families with past due accounts. Families who have a past due balance with a provider who will not accept the voucher may call one of the other providers on the voucher and start a new service with a new provider.

Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students Program

But some rural areas, like where Hills live, don’t have any other options.

“I felt pretty bad,” Hill said. “I dreaded her asking me because she was, to be honest, she was somewhat excited about it all.”

News 19 reached out to North Alabama Electric Cooperative to ask why Hill’s voucher was denied.

The assistant manager, William Selby, attributed it to a customer policy that had not been adjusted to meet the needs of the ABC program.

Selby added that the company just started receiving voucher requests, and not many people had been turned away. After the phone conversation, Selby mentioned the policy would be amended.

“As of right now, we’re looking at changing that,” he said. “We don’t want to keep a child, a student, that needs to have internet access. We don’t want them not to have it.”

Selby said the branch would be accepting the vouchers effective immediately.

The state department of economic and community affairs said families who don’t have multiple service options in their area can request a wireless hotspot through the ABC program.

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