SG to provide free internet access to limited number of students

Under a partnership with T-Mobile, Student Government is set to launch a new program to provide free hotspot plans for students throughout the semester. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

An ensuing pandemic and the “new normal” hasn’t erased the issues that many are still trying to adapt to, including the lack of access to reliable internet. As the demand for online instruction increases, students who are struggling with consistent access to a stable connection could see some relief this semester.

Student Government (SG) officials at the Tampa campus have purchased 20 hotspot plans from T-Mobile that will be free for students to check out and use as needed throughout the semester, but will run the SG budget $29.50 per month for each device. Tampa SG’s executive officials will meet this week to discuss the logistics of the rollout, including eligibility and the process of how the hotspots will be distributed.

The Tampa branch plans on providing five months of hotspot service, which will cost around $2,950 in total. Whether or not these services will continue will be up to the next administration, according to Deputy Chief Financial Officer Jessica Senatus.

“We essentially had the means to cover these five months, and we want to test drive and see how it goes,” said Senatus. “I don’t know what the next term is going to do, but we’re hoping maybe this is a basis, they can look at the statistics, they can look at the numbers, [and see] if we even need it [after this semester].”

The St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee campuses will also be providing hotspots to its students, but the amount has yet to be determined. 

Senatus said she expects the Tampa campus’ hotspots to arrive at the end of the month based on conversations with the corresponding T-Mobile representative.

“It seemed like the consensus was it would be as soon as possible, it wouldn’t be a two-month wait, that we would be kicking ourselves in the foot,” she said. “So I’d say by the end of January we’d have them.” 

The hotspots are also being given to SG at no cost, opposed to T-Mobile’s regular cost of $90. The $29.50 monthly fees are solely for the hotspots’ internet service, according to Senatus.

While the exact logistics of how the hotspots will be distributed will be determined in the upcoming week, Senatus expects to have a tracking system in place for each hotspot as they are given to students on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“What I think is going to happen is we’re going to have a system in which we know which hotspot is assigned to X person, so once a semester is over, or you know, it could be that a student needs it for one month and they get a Wi-Fi service up and running and they’re good, or it could be they need it for the whole semester,” said Senatus. “So all of these things have to be accounted for.”

To gauge the need of hotspots from the USF student population, the deputy chief financial officers across all three campuses developed a survey that asked students how reliable their internet access was and what major obstacles they faced in terms of internet connectivity. The survey was distributed to students via an OASIS announcement in the fall.

“It was a combined effort … all [of the chief financial officers] sat down and talked about the issue and figured out the best questions to ask,” said Senatus.

A second survey was released by USF administration with more questions about how USF students have fared with internet access throughout the pandemic. Out of the 1,219 students from the Tampa campus who participated in the survey, 20% responded that they needed reliable internet access. 

At the St. Pete campus, 19.57% of 138 students who responded said they lacked a reliable internet connection, according to Deputy Chief Financial Officer Brandon Castle. Due to the Sarasota-Manatee Deputy Chief Financial Officer Hannah Dornas being on a leave of absence, The Oracle has yet to receive its campus’ data.

“It’s different when it comes to education and the needs, even 1% is an issue because that means students can’t access the internet to be a part of class, to do homework, to complete tasks that they need to complete,” said Senatus. “So, I mean, quite frankly, even if it was 1% we’d have to at least figure out something for those students.

“We may not be buying 1,000 hotspots but still, it all matters.”

Each campus has since used the data from the surveys to determine how to proceed with the hotspot purchases, according to Senatus.

“We ultimately could have, last semester, sat down, bought a bunch of hotspots and said, ‘Here you go.’ But is that efficient? Does that solve the problem or are you just throwing a Band-Aid with your eyes closed hoping you catch the right wound?” 

Throughout its preparations, Senatus said Tampa SG is trying to ensure it thoughtfully carries out the rest of the process as it prepares to provide students with these resources. 

“We don’t want to do [something] good [and] go the wrong way about it,” said Senatus. “We just have to make sure we’re following the rules, and we have to make sure we’re doing what we’re doing in the best interest of students.”