Connect with us

Digital Inclusion

‘Disconnection Day’ Looms as a Flouted ‘Keep Americans Connected’ Pledge Expires

Published

on

Photo of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai by the U.S. Department of Agriculture

June 30, 2020 — When internet historians look back on the present day, Tuesday may end up being known as “Disconnection Day.” That’s because thousands, and perhaps millions, of people across the country will lose broadband access with the sunsetting of the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keep Americans Connected Pledge.”

This pledge was announced by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Friday, March 13, 2020, as the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent.

The pledge has been a much-repeated and much-ballyhooed talking point of the FCC and of internet service providers. See “Broadband Providers Take the Pledge,” Broadband Breakfast, March 16, 2020.

But, as this investigation by Broadband Breakfast reveals, some of the biggest internet service providers — including Cox Communication and Verizon — haven’t been abiding by the pledge they took to “not terminate service to any residential or small business customer.”

Moreover, the pledge by these and other providers ends on Tuesday, putting an end to whatever short-term relief was offered by the carriers who did abide by the pledge. This is almost certain to lead to a significant wave of internet disconnections on “Disconnection Day.”

The pledge says that providers will not terminate services to customers because of their inability to pay

Within 24 hours of Pai’s calling on internet service providers to voluntarily and temporarily cease disconnections, hundreds responded affirmatively. The initiative was aimed at maintaining a line of communication and information for all Americans during the anticipated months of economic and physical hardship.

The terms of the pledge read:

  • Given the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on American society, [[Company Name]] pledges for the next 60 days to:
  • (1) not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic;
  • (2) waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and
  • (3) open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.

Among the original signatories included AT&T, CenturyLink, Comcast, Cox Communication, Verizon and T-Mobile.

Although the original pledge would have ended in mid-May, in late April the FCC and more than 750 carriers mutually agreed that it would be extended an additional 45 days, or until June 30.

An extension of the pledge had always been contemplated by Pai and his allies. In an interview with Commissioner Brendan Carr during Broadband Breakfast Live Online on March 19, Carr said that the date the pledge expired would be re-evaluated. And in late April, a group of 24 state attorneys general asked carriers to extend the commitment until August 11.

Did the pledge require consumers to take affirmative actions to avoid disconnection?

While the FCC’s web site currently boasts that 800 companies and associations have signed the pledge, a number of providers have backtracked on their promises by disconnecting customers internet services at a time when it is more essential than ever.

Some, including Cox Communications, have backtracked on their promises while still publicly advertising their commitment to what they view as the terms of the Keep Americans Connected Pledge.

Others, including Verizon, have openly stated that the pledge permitted them to disconnect customers who did not “notify” the company of their inability to pay.

Still other consumers have fallen through cracks or apparent loopholes in the pledge, including whether customers with a prior outstanding bill could be disconnected in the wake of the pandemic, or whether — being “voluntary” — the pledge was ever legally enforceable at all.

Making arrangements with Cox Communications

Tweets from the customer service account of Cox Communications argued that the broadband company is allowed to disconnect a customer unless the customer took proactive action to maintain internet connectivity.

After customer Carrie Heird attempted to hold Cox Communications accountable for threatening to shut off her internet connection, Cox Customer Care said, “Please make sure to call first thing in the morning to make the necessary arrangements. Without such an arrangement, interruptions due to billing or unmet payment would automatically cause an interruption in the service.”

Heird responded by attaching Cox’s press release detailing their pledge to not terminate any user’s service until June 30. “You shut my internet down after telling your customers that they would still have internet service until at least June 30, according to your app,” she stated.

The Cox press release attached reads, “Through June 30, Cox extends its commitment to not terminate internet or telephone service to any residential or small business customer because of an inability to pay their bills due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.”

Yet, Cox Customer Care replied, “I’m sorry for any misunderstanding, what the article says is that we are offering to work with customers affected by COVID. I know how important it is to stay connected and don’t want to see your service impacted, so I wanted to remind you to call as soon as possible.”

Cox Public Relations Manager Angelique LeBlanc said that the company did not discuss specific accounts.

“Customers experiencing financial hardship are encouraged to contact our customer support teams directly and we can work with them on an individual basis,” she said. “Our focus has been on ensuring our customers stay connected during the pandemic, and we will continue to extend multiple options and additional flexibility just like in any crisis to try to keep them connected.”

Verizon requires that consumers ‘notify’ the company of inability to pay

Verizon’s customer service account responded similarly to a customer, Asher Schwartz, who Tweeted displeasure with the provider for shutting down his account after only two months of unpaid bills.

Verizon Support replied to Schwartz’s criticism, saying, “Sorry to hear about the trouble as these are tough times. We have a short form to be filled out for customers experiencing hardships during the pandemic.”

Schwartz responded with a screenshot of Verizon’s website which read, “If you are a customer who is experiencing hardship because of COVID-19 and cannot pay your bill in full we will not charge you a late fee or terminate your service until after 6/30/2020. To qualify, just click the Confirm button.”

Adria Tomaszewski, Verizon’s director of communications, told Broadband Breakfast that “Any customer who notified us of their inability to pay their bills due to disruptions caused by COVID-19 did not have their service disrupted or terminated.”

Tomaszewski linked a press release announcing Verizon’s continued commitment to the pledge, reading, “We will neither terminate service nor charge late fees to our postpaid wireless, residential, and small business customers that notify us of their inability to pay their bills due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.”

In other words, Verizon customers had to take proactive action to qualify not to be disconnected, even during the period in which the Keep Americans Connected Pledge was going on.

Even if customers had been proactive, they may still not have qualified.

Moreover, the FCC’s announced pledge might have led some customers to believe there was no possibility of their internet service being shut off, and hence not realize the need to be proactive.

Congressional oversight of the ‘Keep Americans Connected’ Pledge

The Keep Americans Connected Pledge has helped internet users stay connected during the pandemic. But some companies’ lack of commitment to follow through on the words of the pledge, all while receiving credit for their efforts, makes Pai’s pledge look more like a publicity stunt than an effort to stop disconnections of vital services during a time of crisis.

In a House Energy and Commerce Communications & Technology Subcommittee hearing on May 19, the effectiveness of the pledge was called into question by Rep. Jerry McNerney. D-Calif.

McNerney asked Pai how many complaints the FCC had received to date regarding providers failing to honor commitments made under the Keep America Connected Pledge.

Pai responded, “We have received approximately 2,200 COVID-19 related complaints. Of those, about 500 involved a complaint specifically about the pledge.”

“It’s my understanding that most of the complaints that we have received about the pledge have been resolved to ensure that the consumer remains connected during the pandemic,” Pai continued.

McNerney inquired further on what steps the agency took to ensure that providers who committed to the pledge meet those terms when a complaint was made.

“I have been holding calls with some of the companies that have taken the pledge, and the trade associations that represent them, and have repeatedly reinforced the importance of maintaining connectivity during this time,” Pai said.

The FCC’s original language never refers to the pledge as voluntary, yet companies increasingly refer to it as the “voluntary Keep Americans Connected Pledge.”

Adding the word “voluntary” may effectively excuse companies for backtracking on commitments spelled out in the original pledge.

While Pai did not express interested in going after ISPs or holding providers accountable to the terms of the pledge, consumers such as those quoted above continue to suffer real consequences and real disconnections from a failure to abide by the terms of the pledge.

The experience that consumers had with some providers during the period of the pledge may highlight the need for increased transparency from internet service providers, and oversight by the FCC and Congress, in the future.

Pai has expressed concern about what happens after ‘Disconnection Day’

On June 19, 2020, Pai sent a letter to Congress seeking legislation to help consumers and small businesses continue to stay connected over the coming months, as the Keep Americans Connected Pledge expires on Tuesday.

Pai informed Congress that he has asked companies not to disconnect consumers and small businesses who are behind on their bills in July, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead, Pai has encouraged providers to offer the option of extended payment plans and deferred payment arrangements. He also asked providers to maintain and expand their plans for low-income families, as well as their remote learning initiatives for students in the coming months.

Many carriers reported they have already committed to taking steps to keep Americans connected in coming months.

These providers plan to assist by placing customers into payment plans of up to 12 months, deferring device payments, waiving a portion of customers’ unpaid balances and working with customers on an individualized basis in cases of extraordinary hardship.

The pledge officially ends June 30, but some companies aren’t waiting. “Disconnection Day” looms as many providers are poised to cut off consumers who haven’t paid their bills.

Are American internet service providers affordable?

Still, internet service providers cannot be expected to go on not getting paid forever.

According to the Wireless Internet Service Provider Association, which polled its members on June 23, the average internet provider lost $30,000 by committing to the Keep Americans Connected Pledge.

The majority of the lost profit, about $25,000, came from non-paying accounts; however, consumers avoiding late fees and companies’ donating Wi-Fi further impacted the loss of revenue.

Although the Keep Americans Connected federal initiative is coming to an end, the pandemic is roaring on. COVID-19 infection levels are peaking. Some states that were previously on a reopening trajectory are closing public spaces back down. The need for access to the web and the challenge for affording it have not gone away.

Consumers are currently indebting themselves to maintain access to largely unaffordable critical information resources.

In previous cost of connectivity reports, New America’s Open Technology Institute’s found that Americans pay the most in the world for broadband access, in some cases for service that is eight times slower than its global competitors.

Digital Inclusion

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk: Three Keys to Building Transformative Broadband Plans

‘While the federal government’s infrastructure funding creates unique opportunities, it also exposes challenges that states and tribes must get in front of to ensure that funding is sustainable and implementation is effective.’

Published

on

The author of this Expert Opinion is Samantha Schartman-Cycyk, President of the Marconi Society

This week, I am thrilled to join state, local and tribal leaders from across the U.S. as we convene in Cleveland, Ohio, for the Broadband Access Summit. As a local and long-time advocate for digital inclusion, I am proud that the Pew Charitable Trusts and Next Century Cities selected Cleveland, one of the least connected cities in the country, as the site for a timely conversation about how we can effectively spend the unprecedented levels of federal funding for broadband infrastructure.

While the federal government’s infrastructure funding creates unique opportunities, it also exposes challenges that states and tribes must get in front of to ensure that funding is sustainable and implementation is effective.

The good news is that digital equity is finally front and center—where it belongs—and it has taken nearly twenty years of advocacy and practice to get us to this point.

Following are three key lessons I have learned to ensure efforts to expand connectivity are community oriented and sustainable.

1. Bring in local leadership—now

Across the country, areas that have a dedicated local leadership responsible solely for digital equity and inclusion are outpacing their counterparts. Someone, or ideally a team, needs to wake up every day thinking about what digital equity means in their community, how to make a reality in a way that supports key priorities, and where the true needs are. We have seen benefits in cities such as Detroit and Seattle, who have taken this approach.

We must support these leaders with accurate data. At the Marconi Society, a nonprofit that champions digital equity, I helped launch the National Broadband Mapping Coalition to help leaders from rural communities and urban ‘digital deserts’ identify broadband gaps. The NBMC has developed a no-cost mapping toolkit to help educate and guide communities.

2. Plan for sustainability while you have strong funding

We need to anchor digital inclusion efforts to long-term state programs to solidify funding and reinforce the intersectional impact of digital inclusion. Typically, digital inclusion programs blossom within the period of investment but falter when funding runs out, only to peak again when new grants or federal money become available.

This process wastes resources, relationships, and time, resulting in stop-and-start programs that aren’t able to address residents’ needs nor build momentum.

For example, a state like Maine with an older rural population is likely to prioritize services that allow for aging in place and telemedicine care for seniors. States like Utah or Texas, with relatively young populations, might place a higher priority on education and K–12 STEM pipelines. This alignment will allow state leaders to prioritize and bake sustainability into their broadband plans, create digital equity programs that support their priorities, and incorporate data collection into their work.

3. Create the workforce your state will need

In order to implement strong broadband plans that create true digital equity, state and local governments need a pipeline of people who understand the unique intersection of technology, policy, and grassroots digital inclusion work needed to bridge the digital divide. As of last year, nearly 20 states did not even have a dedicated broadband office to begin this work. With funding already being dispersed to states, we are at a critical moment.

To help create this workforce, the Marconi Society conceptualized and is developing the first-ever “Digital Inclusion Leadership” professional certificate with Arizona State University. The program will launch in Fall 2022 and will include top-ranked professors and leading industry experts as teachers and advisors.

I believe that this interdisciplinary workforce will continue to be in high demand as states integrate digital equity into their long-term priorities.

After years of helping to lay the groundwork for the current burst of funding and activity around digital equity, I can say that our work has only just begun. We have the gift of beginning with knowledge and funding that can be truly transformative. The digitally equitable future we are fighting for is closer than it has ever been before—let’s make sure we get this right.

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk is President of the Marconi Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing digitally equitable communities by empowering change agents across sectors. Over her 20-year career, she has built forward-thinking programs and tools to drive impact on digital inclusion at the local and national levels, through projects with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), community training, and data collecting efforts. The Marconi Society celebrates and supports visionaries building tomorrow’s technologies upon the foundation of a connected world we helped create. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Continue Reading

Digital Inclusion

W. Antoni Sinkfield: To Succeed in 21st Century, Communities Need to Get Connected Now

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community and understand its problems.

Published

on

The author of this Expert Opinion is Reverend W. Antoni Sinkfield, Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary.

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community, understand its problems, and provide support in challenging times. Particularly during the pandemic, it has been hard not to notice that my parishioners, and folks across the country, are divided into two groups: those with access to the internet, and those without.

In 2022, digital inclusion is still something we strive for in poor and rural areas throughout America. The lack of reliable internet access is an enormous disadvantage to so many people in all facets of their lives.

To fully participate in today’s society, all people, no matter who they are and no matter where they live, must have access to the internet. Think of the remote learning every child had to experience when schools were closed, and the challenges that families faced when they didn’t have access to a quality connection.

It’s a question of plain fairness.

Politicians have been talking for decades about bringing high-speed internet access to everyone, however many families continue to be left behind. More than 42 million people across the country lack affordable, reliable broadband connections, and as many as 120 million people who cannot get online are stuck with slow service that does not allow them to take advantage of everything the internet has to offer.

People of color are disproportionately affected by lack of broadband access

Lack of broadband disproportionately affects communities of color, as well: 35 percent of Americans of Latino descent and 29 percent of African-Americans do not have a broadband connection at home.

Every person in rural towns, urban neighborhoods, and tribal communities needs and deserves equal and full economic and educational opportunities. Studies show that students without home access to the internet are less likely to attend college and face a digital skills gap equivalent to three years’ worth of schooling. Small businesses, which are the cornerstone of rural and urban communities alike, need broadband to reach their customers and provide the service they expect.

Simply put, having access to the internet in every community is vital to its ability to succeed in the 21st century.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to take major steps toward a solution. Last year, Congress passed President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides $65 billion to expand broadband access and affordability. It is essential that we use this money to connect as many unserved and underserved communities as we can – and as quickly as we can.

Different places need different options to bridge the digital divide

As we bridge the digital divide, we must listen to those who have been left behind and make sure that we deploy solutions that fit their needs. Different places need different options – so it’s important that all voices are heard, and the technology that works best for the community is made readily available.

All people need access to broadband to learn, work, shop, pay bills, and get efficient healthcare.

When I talk to my parishioners, they speak about how much of their lives have transitioned online and are frustrated about not having reliable access. They do not care about the nuances of how we bring broadband to everyone. They just want to have it now – and understandably so.

This means that we must explore all solutions possible to provide high-speed broadband with the connection and support they need, when they need it, regardless of where they live.

Now is the time to meet those struggling where they are, stop dreaming about bridging the divide, and just get it done. Our government has a rare opportunity to fix an enormous problem, using money already approved for the purpose. Let’s make sure they do so in a manner that works for the communities they’re trying to help.

Rev. W. Antoni Sinkfield, Ph.D., serves as Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary, and is an ordained Itinerate Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Continue Reading

Digital Inclusion

Digital Literacy, Outreach as Important as Physical Infrastructure, Panel Hears

Digital literacy gap and lack of outreach are part of the digital divide.

Published

on

Screenshot of National Digital Inclusion Alliance Executive Director Angela Siefer at TLC event in 2019

WASHINGTON, April 26, 2022 – Broadband advocates argued Thursday that outreach and digital literacy are as important as infrastructure and are necessary to close the digital divide.

National Digital Inclusion Alliance Executive Director Angela Siefer explained during a Protocol event Thursday that the government’s considerations need to extend beyond the deployment of physical broadband infrastructure and should be equally focused on addressing digital literacy and adoption efforts in underserved and unserved communities.

Siefer listed several pitfalls that are often overlooked and only broaden the digital divide. Among them, she listed fees tied to digital literacy, such as securing devices to access the internet and the tech support necessary to make them usable.

Additionally, she addressed the lack of trust that exists between historically underserved or unserved communities.

“We have to understand the reasons that folks would not take free internet,” Siefer said about previous adoption programs. “I think we learned that lesson again and again at the height of the pandemic when lots of folks were trying to solve the affordability issues [by] paying for community members’ internet, and community members were saying ‘no,’ and they just walk away because free internet sounds like a scam.”

She said that those running programs designed to help these communities have to consider the unique issues facing each community and then evaluate who the communities trust and how best to get information to them.

“There may be device issues, there may be privacy and security concerns, or maybe other digital skills/needs that a person has,” Siefer said. “So, we have to address all of their needs. Because if we think we’re only going to fix it by addressing one we’re not going to get to the results that we want to get to.”

NTIA head explains broadband infrastructure process

In separate remarks at the event, National Telecommunications and Information Administration Administrator Alan Davidson outlined a roadmap for states to follow to receive federal funding allocated as part of the Commerce agency’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program, which will distribute $42.5 billion from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

Davidson explained that in order for states to receive the funding they have been allotted, they must provide plans that lay out how they will handle their grant making procedures, and that plan must be approved by the NTIA. “[The NTIA] has been given the authority to approve the initial plans that states put together,” Davidson said. “Only [on the initial plan] has been approved does the first tranche of money go out.”

This first portion of funding will only amount to 20 percent of the total sum the state can get. Following this dispersion of the initial 20 percent, states would have to submit a final plan and have it approved by the NTIA before the following 80 percent will be dispersed.

“We will have a lot of oversight to make sure that states are following through on the requirements of the statute and are meeting the requirements,” Davidson added. “There will also be a lot of grant program oversight to make sure that the money is being spent wisely – to make sure that the sub-grantees who get the money are actually following through on their commitments.”

“We know that we are going to have to partner with [states] and also offer them help,” Davidson said. “Different states are in really different situations. “We know that we are going to have to partner with them and support them – that is going to be a key part of what we do here in the federal government.”

Continue Reading

Recent

Signup for Broadband Breakfast

Get twice-weekly Breakfast Media news alerts.
* = required field

Trending