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Digital Inclusion

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

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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.

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Digital Inclusion

Infrastructure Bill Supports Digital Inclusion, Says Advocacy Group

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes billions for states to expand digital inclusion efforts.

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Screenshot of Amy Huffman

WASHINGTON, December 10, 2021 – National Digital Inclusion Association Policy Director Amy Huffman explicated the role of the recent federal infrastructure legislation – and its support for digital inclusion and digital equity – in a Tuesday webinar.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act allocates $42.5 billion in the Broadband Equity and Deployment program. IIJA also allocates $2.75 billion for the Digital Equity Act.

The Digital Equity Act funds are designed to help improve states and local governments’ digital inclusion efforts. The federal government recognizes that states, local governments, and practitioners “who already are embedded in your communities are the trusted resources in your communities that you all are the best ones to do digital inclusion,” Huffman said.

“You’ll see that ethos has made its way throughout all of the both the Digital Equity Act and the Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program” of the broader legislation.

The Digital Equity Act codifies the definitions of “digital equity” and “digital inclusion.” Digital equity is our “goal,” said Huffman.

“That’s what we’re trying to achieve, we want to make sure that we live in a nation where everyone, every individual and community has the capacity for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy,” she said. Digital inclusion involves the programs, policies and tools that help the nation achieve a digitally equitable state.

Indeed, the Digital Equity Act contains two programs: the State Digital Equity program and the Competitive Grant program.

The Act also creates three grant funds. Administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Commerce Department, the digital equity competitive grant program will supply money for states to do digital equity work.

The program is split into planning grants and capacity grants: Planning grants help states create digital equity plans, while capacity grants give money to states to implement those plans.

The Broadband Equity Access and Deployment program gives block grants to states for broadband infrastructure deployment and other digital inclusion activities.

Each state will receive at least $100 million, and use an additional formula for determining how much additional funding states receive. Eligible grantees are all U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and U.S. territories. Subgrantees can be cooperatives such as telephone or electric member cooperatives, non-profit organizations, and public-private partnerships.

Each state’s plan funded by these grant programs must create “measurable objectives for documenting and promoting various digital inclusion activities that will advance the covered populations pursuit of digital equity and closing of these barriers,” Huffman said.

“The states are already in charge of so economic development workforce development health outcomes, etc. so they want the state to think holistically, about how they’re doing around digital equity will help them achieve their other goals.”

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Digital Inclusion

Despite General Satisfaction with E-rate Program, Tribal Libraries Are Being Left Behind

Tribal community leaders are concerned over the effectiveness of outreach methods the FCC uses to fund broadband in tribal libraries.

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Miriam Jorgensen, research director of the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona

WASHINGTON, November 1, 2021 – Leaders of efforts to expand broadband in Indigenous communities are sounding the alarm to the Federal Communications Commission, saying that its E-rate program to supply libraries with funding for internet infrastructure is not effectively aiding tribal libraries despite extensive use of the program by non-tribal libraries.

Separate events held Wednesday heard this contrasting experience, when in the morning, E-rate compliance service firm Funds for Learning held a session to share generally positive experiences from a survey it conducted of what E-rate applicants thought of the program, and specifically its application portal. The program, which is supported by the Universal Service Fund, provides schools and libraries with broadband subsidies to keep students connected.

Hours later that day, the FCC held a virtual listening session for tribal leaders and staff to address a lack of E-rate broadband funding requests from tribal libraries.

“Nearly 40 percent of respondents had never heard of e-rate,” chat messaged meeting attendee Miriam Jorgensen, research director of the Native Nations Institute at the University of Arizona, referencing an Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, & Museums (ATALM) survey of tribal libraries.

“Many of those who had felt that the program was too complicated to apply for,” she said.

Susan Feller, president and CEO of the ATALM, said that tribal libraries do not see relevance for themselves in E-rate funds.

Low staff numbers causing fewer tribal applicants

Also brought up in the meeting as a possible explanation for the rarity of E-rate applications from tribal libraries was that the libraries often have a low staff capacity and seldom employ grant writers or part time employees who could assist in applying to funding opportunities.

According to Jim Dunstan, founder of Mobius Legal Group and lawyer for the Navajo Nation, many tribes are both E-rate providers and applicants for E-rate funds, causing technical problems during application for E-rate funds.

The Funds for Learning’s survey found that 73 percent of respondents planned on submitting an E-rate broadband funding application in 2022, with 46 percent saying they felt “strongly” that they would apply. Connectivity results for Indigenous nations are still low, as FCC Emergency Connectivity Fund money has gone to tribes in just nine states, while strong digital infrastructure remains rare in many Native American communities.

The response rate for the survey was higher than the response rate in each of the last four years of the survey’s administration from 2018 to 2020.

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Digital Inclusion

Rosenworcel Hails FCC’s Efforts on Mapping, Said Country Needs More Wi-Fi Access

Rosenworcel also emphasized spectrum policy and getting connectivity to low-income Americans.

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FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

WASHINGTON, October 27, 2021 ­– Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said Friday she is optimistic about the agency’s direction on new broadband mapping efforts and said the testing of the project has produced the best wireless coverage map in the country.

Speaking at the Marconi Society Symposium Friday, Rosenworcel said the mapping efforts are part driven by crowdsourced methods that she credited as a valuable way to ensure the maps are as accurate as possible.

The new maps are a product of the Broadband DATA Act, which is set to expand mapping efforts to make them more precise. The current mapping method, which uses Form 477 data, has led some companies to bid for federal funding in areas that are already served. The FCC is currently cleaning up the results of the $9.2 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund due to those errors.

Rosenworcel emphasizes spectrum policy

Additionally, Rosenworcel emphasized the need to improve spectrum policy. She suggested that this take place by making sure consumers benefit from competitive FCC auctions and placing more Wi-Fi access in locations where licensed airwaves see low usage.

Industry experts at the event stressed challenges that must be addressed in order to expand broadband access, such as the fact that low-income individuals will often reject offers to receive free internet. This happens because the individuals think that a free service will be low quality or that they will be tricked into paying for the service in the future.

During one panel, professor Margaret Martonosi of Princeton University explained the importance of realizing that utility functions present in rich and poor service markets are different, meaning that the appetite for internet service in richer communities is different from the appetite in poorer ones.

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