Senior and disabled protesters occupy SF AT&T store demanding Wi-Fi access


In an increasingly connected world, Maria Guadalupe Siordia-Ortiz worries about her future. At 67 and in the midst of a pandemic that has changed the way the world works, she quickly learned that if you’re not online, you’re left out.

Since the arrival of COVID-19 last year, Siordia-Ortiz, a resident of San Francisco, has seen her friends – many older, some disabled – lose access to many of the things they have most. need now, like social networking connections and access to their doctors. At the end of their life, with limited means, many cannot afford reliable high-speed Internet access.

“These moments have caught up with us. For us it was something so sudden, ”said Siordia-Ortiz. “The kids grow up with it all, but we don’t, and we feel a bit left out. “

On Monday, Siordia-Ortiz, eager to support her struggling friends and hoping to avoid those challenges in her own future, was one of more than 50 elderly and disabled people who walked and occupied the AT&T San Francisco store at 1 Powell St requiring free, accessible and reliable internet access.

For many, the demand for reliable broadband has become more than just a “digital gatekeeper” in a digital world, according to Senior and Disability Action, the San Francisco-based advocacy organization that organized the protest. Nowadays, protesters said, when so much is done online, Internet access has become a matter of survival.

“We have to be connected. We have to have the opportunity, the chance to be a part of this world, ”said Siordia-Ortiz, who was unable to schedule a telemedicine appointment due to her unreliable internet connection.

Protesters entered the AT&T store chanting phrases such as “AT&T, have some respect. We cannot afford the Internet. They were asking for free, fast – at least 200 Mbps – and reliable internet service for elderly, disabled and low-income residents of the nine Bay Area counties.

Senior and Disability Action chose to host the protest at the AT&T store because AT&T is one of the most widely used Internet service providers in the Bay Area and across the country. AT&T and other internet service providers have made significant profits during the pandemic as many people, including the elderly and the disabled, faced unprecedented financial hardship, organizers said.

Jessica Lehman, an organizer of Senior and Disability Action, said during the protest that AT&T refused to speak to the protesters. Jim Kimberly, director of corporate communications for AT&T, later retorted that his office had not been contacted about the protest or by its attendees.

The company said it awarded $ 100,000 last year to Give2SF “to support seniors and adults with disabilities” and $ 20,000 to Community Tech Network for tablets and digital literacy training for 100 seniors in the world. part of this organization’s Home Connect program.

“We support the right to assemble and protest over public property and understand the importance of reliable Internet access, especially for the elderly and disabled,” AT&T said in a statement. “We encourage customers to stay connected and explore low-cost home Internet service options with AT&T Access and the Emergency Broadband Benefit. “

For Cora McCoy, 80, a poor internet connection is also a problem for family members. Her 13-year-old grandson who lives with her struggled to connect to the internet for homework and often had connectivity issues when he attended online school last year. Her Wi-Fi signal is not strong enough to reach every room in her house, she said.

“It’s ridiculous; I’m very upset,” McCoy said. “It’s about time something got done.… We are dealing with companies that could help us if they did.

Efforts to help the elderly, disabled and poor get online are often insufficient or fail to address the most pressing issues, organizers of Senior and Disability Action said.

Organizations such as the Community Tech Network, which was founded in the Bay Area, provide people with devices and training to improve digital access and literacy. While useful, these resources cannot be used to their full potential if the people they are meant to serve do not have a reliable high-speed internet connection, protesters said.

Federal programs like the Emergency Broadband Benefit, approved by Congress this year, offer eligible households monthly discounts on high-speed Internet service and a one-time discount for a computer or tablet. But the program is temporary, and participants have complained that the available internet packages are too slow for today’s needs.

Additionally, the internet service provided by AT&T through the EBB program is only available to new customers, organizers said, meaning people who were already paying for an AT&T plan cannot take advantage of EBB discounts without spending. to another supplier.

Rey LaChaux, digital equity manager at the San Francisco mayor’s office of housing and community development, recently told The Chronicle that the city has considered using $ 5 million of its US bailout funding to providing 42 affordable housing sites with Wi-Fi access.

“Free Wi-Fi would help our wallets and improve our connection,” said McCoy, who said she needed the internet to talk to family and friends, attend church services online and research. informations.

Employees at the AT&T store, one of whom wore a branded shirt with “Equality” written on them, called on protest organizers to hold the rally outside the store and said they would pass on the concerns from the group to their supervisors, who were not present.

The protest leaders presented them with a letter listing their demands, signed by dozens of members of Senior and Disability Action.

“We know AT&T can afford it,” Siordia-Ortiz said. “It’s very important for us to get in touch with our family now, in COVID. It is very important for us to get in touch with our friends now because we are so lonely.

Andy Picon is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @andpicon

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