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‘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.

Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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Digital Inclusion

Historically Underrepresented Communities Urged to Take Advantage of BEAD Planning

BEAD requirements a unique opportunity for underrepresented communities to be involved in broadband builds.

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Photo of Mara Reardon, NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2023 – Underrepresented communities are being urged to take advantage of the opportunity brought by the billions in funding coming from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration by actively planning for the money being allocated by June 30.

The $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program is a unique opportunity for historically underrepresented communities to be heard in critical digital equity conversations, said experts at a United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce event Tuesday.

“For once, they are being included in the implementation process,” said Mara Reardon, the NTIA’s deputy director of public engagement, adding this is a “unique opportunity.” It is essential that communities take advantage of this by approaching state broadband offices, drafting broadband expansion plans, and showing up in commenting processes, Reardon urged.

Furthermore, historically underrepresented communities can make themselves available as contractors by subscribing to state mailing lists, being aware of requests going out, and participating in the state bidding process, said Reardon.

The notice of funding outlines several requirements for inclusion of historically underrepresented groups in the planning process, Reardon reiterated. Specifically, it mandates that eligible entities include underrepresented stakeholders in the process of developing their required five-year plans. This type of requirement is unique to federal infrastructure grants, said Reardon.

Due to the nature of the grant requirements, states must take necessary affirmative steps to ensure diverse groups are used in contracting and planning, added Lynn Follansbee of telecom trade association USTelecom. This means that projects will be outsourced to various providers and suppliers and that the work will be broken into pieces to involve as many groups as possible, said Follansbee.

The NTIA is making an effort to ensure that all community members are heard in critical issues, even establishing the office of public engagement for that purpose. It also said it has awarded $304 million in planning grants for broadband infrastructure builds to all states and Washington D.C. by the end of 2022.

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Digital Inclusion

CES 2023: Congressional Oversight, Digital Equity Priorities for New Mexico Senator

Sen. Lujan once again voiced concern that the FCC’s national broadband map contains major inaccuracies.

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Photo of Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., in February 2018 by Keith Mellnick used with permission

LAS VEGAS, January 6, 2023 – Sen. Ben Ray Lujan on Friday endorsed “oversight at every level” of executive agencies’ broadband policies and decried service providers that perpetuate digital inequities.

Lujan appeared before an audience at the Consumer Electronics Show with Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Sen. Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., to preview the tech-policy priorities of the 118th Congress.

Among Washington legislators, Senators had CES 2023 to themselves: Representatives from the House of Representatives were stuck in Washington participating on Friday in the 12th, 13th and 14th votes for House Speaker.

Congress allocated $65 billion to broadband projects in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, the bulk of which, housed in the $42.45 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, is yet to be disbursed. The IIJA funds are primarily for infrastructure, but billions are also available for digital equity and affordability projects.

Several federal legislators, including Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., have called for close supervision of Washington’s multitude of broadband-related programs. At CES on Friday, Warner argued that previous tranches of broadband funding have been poorly administered, and Lujan once again voiced concern that the Federal Communications Commission’s national broadband map, whose data will be used to allocate BEAD funds, contains major inaccuracies.

Affordable, high-speed broadband is now a necessity, stated Warner. Lujan argued that policy must crafted to ensure all communities have access to connectivity.

“The [Federal Communications Commission] is working on some of the digital equity definitions right now…. I don’t want to see definitions that create loopholes that people can hide behind to not connect communities,” the New Mexico senator said, emphasizing the importance of “the digital literacy to be able take advantage of what this new connection means, so that people can take advantage of what I saw today [at CES].”

At a Senate hearing in December, Lujan grilled executives from industry trade associations over allegations of digital discrimination.

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