Students use laptops at home to study remotely. A new Berkeley program provides free, high-speed, fiber-optic internet for all students. Photo: Sharon McCutcheon/Creative Commons Credit: Sharon McCutcheon/Creative Commons

This week, Berkeley Unified launched a new program to provide free, high-speed, fiber-optic internet for all students.

When public schools switched to remote learning, getting students online became imperative. The digital divide quickly became the focus of the conversation about educational equity: those lacking access to the internet or a computer could not learn.

Since schools shuttered on March 13, Berkeley Unified has distributed 580 hotspots to students who lacked reliable internet and 4,000 Chromebooks in an effort to address the digital divide. But as the pandemic has worn on, demand for internet access has grown.

“Students that may have had stable internet access or housing at the beginning of the pandemic are now losing those due to loss of family employment,” Valerie Kratzer, development coordinator at Berkeley Public Schools Fund, wrote in an email. “Every day now I receive requests for financial support to keep a family’s internet from being turned off or a request for a hotspot to replace lost internet service.”

In response, Berkeley Unified has partnered with Sonic to provide high-speed access to families for the remainder of the academic year. The plan, valued at up to $2.9 million, is funded by Sonic and supported by the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, which helped to develop the program and is providing support to families beyond Sonic’s own customer service.

“We’re thrilled to work with the Berkeley Public Schools Fund and to partner with Sonic to help solve connectivity challenges our families are facing — especially our most vulnerable families,” said BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens in a statement. “This offer from Sonic has come at a time when many in our school community have lost work or are experiencing diminished incomes due to the pandemic.”

As of Monday, Feb. 8, families are able to sign up for Sonic Wi-Fi. Here’s what you need to know this new program:

How does it work?

All students pre-k through grade 12 at Berkeley Unified School District can sign up for this program if: 1) they are not already a Sonic customer and 2) their home can be served by Sonic Fiber. (Sonic’s footprint covers most of Berkeley, but some households will fall outside of the eligible zone. You can find out if your home for Sonic Fiber by visiting or calling 510-858-7848.)

There will be one offer per household.

How can I sign up?

BUSD families can see if their home is eligible for Sonic Fiber and sign up for this program by visiting or calling 510-858-7848.

Can I still sign up if I already have a different Internet provider at my house?

Yes, but you should check with your current provider about cancellation fees.

I signed up. When will the Wi-Fi service start?

It should take about a week for Sonic employees to set up the Internet service at your home.

When will the Wi-Fi from Sonic end?

The program will end on July 1, 2021. At the moment, Sonic and Berkeley Unified are considering a plan that would extend internet access beyond that date to low-income families.

I’m an employee at BUSD. Can I sign up for Sonic?

No, this offer is for families with students only. But employees at Berkeley Unified can access free Sonic Fiber internet for three months with this separate offer, which is available to educators, among others:

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...