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.