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 Week Highlights Focus on Broadband-Disconnected Urban Residents
Most Americans benefitting from federal spending on rural broadband are white non-Hispanic Americans, says NDIA.
WASHINGTON, October 8, 2021 – Experts on digital empowerment pressed the federal government to maintain a focus on broadband equity during a Wednesday event, hosted on Wednesday by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance as part of “National Digital Inclusion Week.”
Speaking about the broader agenda for NDIA, Angela Siefer, the non-profit group’s executive director, said that NDIA’s purpose was to provide “peer-to-peer learning. We get the conversation started. Everything we get is from boots on the ground.”
This theme of community-informed practice and knowledge sharing echoed throughout the presentation.
Siefer said that NDIA “learned that digital redlining is happening in Cleveland” from discoveries that came from having boots on the ground and from living there.
“Digital redlining” refers to discrimination by ISPs in deployment, maintenance, upgrade or delivery of services. Often, as was alleged in Cleveland, NDIA accused AT&T of avoiding making fiber upgrades to broadband infrastructure. The group has also published reports with the Communications Workers of America making similar charges.
These discoveries have built momentum for some, including New York Democratic Rep. Yvette Clark’s Anti-Digital Redlining Act, introduced in August. The bill attempts to ban systematic broadband underinvestment in low-income communities.
Panelists argued that federal government perpetuates digital divide
Underinvestment in historically excluded communities extends beyond large corporations’ – it includes the U.S. federal government’s broadband investment approach. Paolo Balboa, NDIA’s programs and data manager, said that federal government perpetuates racism within the digital divide.
Balboa discussed how federal broadband programs focus funds on expanding availability to residents in unserved and underserved rural areas, but ignore the many – often black and brown – urban Americans lacking high-speed internet access.
But NDIA’s research found that most Americans benefitting from federal spending on rural broadband are white non-Hispanic Americans. Americans who lack home broadband service for reasons besides local network availability are disproportionately of color, says NDIA.
The panelists argued that federal policies directed at closing the digital divide by spending primarily on rural infrastructure leaves out the digital inclusion programs urban and some rural inhabitants need.
In finding that fewer than 5 % of the bulk of American households without home broadband are rural, NDIA argues for a federal policy approach centering cost of access as the solution to connecting more families of color. The officials advocate a broader focus that includes the experiences of urban city and county residents for whom cost is the major barrier.
Munirih Jester, NDIA programs director said that NDIA keeps an active list of free and low-cost internet plan available for low-income households, and how they may access it to find affordable ISPs.
Amy Huffman, NDIA policy director, discussed the provision of COVID-19 response funding. She highlighted organization’s resources to raise awareness of the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit, a program to help households afford Internet service during the pandemic.
This year, more than 100 events were registered as part of this week’s Digital Inclusion week, with many visible on the NDIA blog, said Yvette Scorse, NDIA Communications Director.
In a statement this Monday, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Infrastructure Agency spotlighted the agency’s efforts on the topic, including its Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program which is making $980 million available to Native American communities.
As previously reported this August, NTIA recently launched Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program making $268 million in grant funds available to HBCUs and other Minority-serving institutions.
Lack of Public Broadband Pricing Information a Cause of Digital Divide, Say Advocates
Panelists argued that lack of equitable digital access is deadly and driven by lack of competition.
September 24, 2021- Affordability, language and lack of competition are among the factors that continue to perpetuate the digital divide and related inequities, according to panelists at a Thursday event on race and broadband.
One of the panelists faulted the lack of public broadband pricing information as a root cause.
In poorer communities there’s “fewer ISPs. There’s less competition. There’s less investment in fiber,” said Herman Galperin, associate professor at the University of Southern California. “It is about income. It is about race, but what really matters is the combination of poverty and communities of color. That’s where we find the largest deficits of broadband infrastructure.”
While acknowledging that “there is an ongoing effort at the [Federal Communications Commission] to significantly improve the type of data and the granularity of the data that the ISPs will be required to report,” Galperin said that the lack of a push to make ISP pricing public will doom that effort to fail.
He also questioned why ISPs do not or are not required to report their maps of service coverage revealing areas of no or low service. “Affordability is perhaps the biggest factor in preventing low-income folks from connecting,” Galperin said.
“It’s plain bang for their buck,” said Traci Morris, executive director of the American Indian Policy Institute at Arizona State University, referring to broadband providers reluctance to serve rural and remote areas. “It costs more money to go to [tribal lands].”
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made that digital divide clearer and more deadly. “There was no access to information for telehealth,” said Morris. “No access to information on how the virus spread.”
Galperin also raised the impact of digital gaps in access upon homeless and low-income populations. As people come in and out of homelessness, they have trouble connecting to the internet at crucial times, because – for example – a library might be closed.
Low-income populations also have “systemic” digital access issues struggling at times with paying their bills having to shut their internet off for months at a time.
Another issue facing the digital divide is linguistic. Rebecca Kauma, economic and digital inclusion program manager for the city of Long Beach, California, said that residents often speak a language other than English. But ISPs may not offer interpretation services for them to be able to communicate in their language.
Funding, though not a quick fix-all, often brings about positive change in the right hands. Long Beach received more than $1 million from the U.S. CARES Act, passed in the wake of the early pandemic last year. “One of the programs that we designed was to administer free hotspots and computing devices to those that qualify,” she said.
Some “band-aid solutions” to “systemic problems” exist but aren’t receiving the attention or initiative they deserve, said Galperin. “What advocacy organizations are doing but we need a lot more effort is helping people sign up for existing low-cost offers.” The problem, he says, is that “ISPs are not particularly eager to promote” low-cost offers.
The event “Race and Digital Inequity: The Impact on Poor Communities of Color,” was hosted by the Michelson 20MM Foundation and its partners the California Community Foundation, Silicon Valley Community Foundation and Southern California Grantmakers.
Outreach ‘Most Valuable Thing’ for Emergency Broadband Benefit Program: Rosenworcel
FCC Acting Chairwoman Rosenworcel said EBB will benefit tremendously from local outreach efforts.
WASHINGTON, September 13, 2021 – The head of the Federal Communications Commission said Monday that a drawback of the legislation that ushered in the $3.2-billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program is that it did not include specific funding for outreach.
“There was no funding to help a lot of these non-profit and local organizations around the country get the word out [about the program],” Jessica Rosenworcel said during an event hosted by the Internet Innovation Alliance about the broadband affordability divide. “And I know that it would get the word out faster if we had that opportunity.”
The program, which launched in May and provides broadband subsidies of $50 and $75 to qualifying low-income households, has so-far seen an uptake of roughly 5.5 million households. The program was a product of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.
“We gotta get those trusted local actors speaking about it because me preaching has its limitations and reaching out to people who are trusted in their communities to get the word out – that is the single most valuable thing we can do,” Rosenworcel said.
She said the FCC has 32,000 partners and has held more than 300 events with members of Congress, tribal leaders, national and local organizations, and educational institutions to that end.
“Anyone who’s interested, we’ll work with you,” she said.
EBB successes found in its mobile friendliness, language inclusion
Rosenworcel also preached the benefits of a mobile application-first approach with the program’s application that is making it accessible to large swaths of the population. “I think, frankly, every application for every program with the government should be mobile-first because we have populations, like the LatinX population, that over index on smartphone use for internet access.
“We gotta make is as easy as possible for people to do this,” she said.
She also noted that the program is has been translated into 13 languages, furthering its accessibility.
“We have work to do,” Rosenworcel added. “We’re not at 100 percent for anyone, and I don’t think we can stop until we get there.”
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