TR Daily Providers Take Pai’s Connectivity Pledge in Light of Coronavirus
Friday, March 13, 2020

Providers Take Pai’s Connectivity Pledge in Light of Coronavirus

The FCC announced today that more than 70 broadband and telephone service providers of all sizes and technologies have agreed, at Chairman Ajit Pai’s request, to take a Keep Americans Connected Pledge aimed at ensuring Americans don’t lose broadband or telephone connectivity “as the country experiences serious disruptions caused by the coronavirus outbreak,” the Commission said in a news release today.

Specifically, the pledge commits providers “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.”

The Chairman made his request to take the pledge in “multiple phone calls with broadband and telephone service providers and trade associations” yesterday.

Among the 70 providers that had made the pledge by late this morning when the Commission made its announcement were AT&T, Inc., CenturyLink, Inc., Charter Communications, Inc., Comcast Corp., Cox Communications, Inc., Frontier Corp., Google Fiber, Sprint Corp., T-Mobile US, Inc., and Verizon Communications, Inc.

In addition, eight trade associations have endorsed the pledge: ACA, the Competitive Carriers Association, CTIA, Incompas, NCTA, NTCA, USTelecom, and the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association.

The Chairman also commended companies “that have already taken additional steps to ensure that Americans, especially low-income American families and veterans, remain connected,” the FCC said in the news release. He urged them to expand and improve discounted broadband programs for low-income consumers, such as by increasing speeds and expanding eligibility, the FCC said. He also urged them to relax their data cap policies as appropriate, waive long-distance and overage fees for telephone services as appropriate, to work with any schools and libraries they serve on remote learning efforts, and to prioritize the connectivity needs of hospitals and healthcare providers.

“Chairman Pai also continued the Commission’s ongoing discussions with service providers regarding their efforts to ensure that changes in usage patterns occurring during the pandemic do not impair network performance, as well as their plans to ensure network resiliency,” the agency said.

In a statement, Chairman Pai said, “As the coronavirus outbreak spreads and causes a series of disruptions to the economic, educational, medical, and civic life of our country, it is imperative that Americans stay connected. Broadband will enable them to communicate with their loved ones and doctors, telework, ensure their children can engage in remote learning, and—importantly —take part in the ‘social distancing’ that will be so critical to limiting the spread of this novel coronavirus,” said Chairman Pai. “That’s why I’m asking all broadband and telephone service providers to take the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. I don’t want any American consumers experiencing hardships because of the pandemic to lose connectivity.”

He added, “I applaud those companies that have already taken the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. They are stepping up to the plate and taking critical steps that will make it easier for Americans to stay connected during this pandemic and maintain much-needed social distancing. I urge other companies to join them. This may be a difficult time for our nation, but if we all work together, I am confident that we can rise to the challenge.”

Many companies issued statements today about their efforts to help ensure Americans can be connected during social distancing, telecommuting, school closures, and medical quarantines.

In a statement commenting on the company pledges to keep Americans connected, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said, “The coronavirus demands swift and decisive action. We know that more Americans than ever before will need internet access for work, education, and healthcare. We also know that this crisis will expose hard truths about the scope for the digital divide. That is why today’s pledge by a number of broadband providers is a welcome first step. But we will need to do more to keep the country connected.”

She suggested that the FCC “get to work to connect schoolchildren” to provide Universal Service Fund support for lending mobile hotspots to students whose schools have closed; “get to work on connecting hospitals and patients just as the FCC did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina”; and “expand these pledges and make adjustments to FCC programs so that even more Americans can get online during this crisis at little or no cost. Where data caps and overage fees are in place, they need to be lifted and eliminated.”

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said that conducting daily activities like work, school, medical care, and personal communications online is not an option “for the tens of millions of Americans without broadband access at home.”

He said that the Keep Americans Connected Pledges by service providers are “a great start,” but like his fellow Democratic Commissioner, he had suggestions for additional steps the FCC could take: (1) “expand the reach and power of our universal service programs” by “quickly increasing the stock of lendable free hotspots available through schools and public libraries, expanding the reach of telemedicine, and enhancing Lifeline”; (2) “eliminate red tape and extend regulatory flexibility to allow broadband providers to quickly expand access” by expediting decisions on waivers and experimental licenses”; and (3) “continue to partner with industry to meet the needs of low-income Americans” by “waiving overage fees and data caps in affected communities.”

“I will also continue to call on providers to create or expand programs providing low-cost internet access. I am pleased that some companies have already taken this step. Others should act now,” Commissioner Starks said.

House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking minority member Greg Walden (R., Ore.) and communications and technology subcommittee ranking minority member Bob Latta (R., Ohio) praised the pledge and the steps taken by individual companies.

“In times of need, we need all hands on deck to protect the public health and safety of communities across the nation. As more people begin to work, learn, and receive health care at home during this coronavirus pandemic, we must also make sure that people can access vital broadband services,” the lawmakers said.

In a letter to President Trump, Sen. Cory Booker (D., N.J.) and Rep. Grace Meng (D., N.Y.) asked him to “set aside at least $1 billion of the $42.6 billion available in the Disaster Relief Fund (DRF) for schools and libraries to purchase mobile hotspots, and for the Federal Communications Commission to use its universal service powers, so that all students can continue to learn while we work together to respond to the spread of COVID-19. Given the current circumstances, students without access to broadband risk being left behind, a scenario that could cause irreparable harm to the long-term education of 12 million American children.”

The FCC is an independent agency, not a part of the executive branch.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) sent letters to utility and telecom trade associations, including NCTA, CTIA, NTCA, CCA, and USTelecom, asking them to work with their member companies “to immediately suspend the practice of shutting off services to customers for reasons of nonpayment nationwide. Given the unprecedented challenges people are facing as well as the need for people to access critical services from home in order to stem this crisis, shutting off power, water, or communications services right now just because someone missed a payment is potentially dangerous. It could push individuals to not follow recommended guidelines from public health professionals and further exacerbate this crisis, which would endanger public safety.”

Yesterday, Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Brandon Pressley wrote to the FCC urging it to remove data plan caps, prevent customers from receiving overage charges on their plans, and prohibit companies from throttling connection speeds due to increased usage while workers and students are at home due to the coronavirus.

In a statement, Free Press Campaign Director Candace Clement said, “The pledge for ISPs to act as other utilities do and halt disconnections during this emergency is welcome, and will help many struggling families. But there’s much more that all ISPs can and should do.

“While a few large ISPs have decided to drop their arbitrary and unreasonable data caps and overage fees, many have not. Millions of people in the United States are still impacted, including those using smaller ISPs that are not nationally known brands,” Ms. Clement added.

“We call on all the major ISP trade organizations to urge their members to halt disconnects, eliminate caps and overage fees, and offer low-cost service packages and other forms of relief to internet users. Trade organizations like ACA, NTCA, RWA, along with NCTA, USTA and CTIA, have a great deal of influence that they should exercise,” she continued.

“There’s also much more that policymakers and the FCC itself can do. Such actions include increasing monthly allotments for Lifeline wireless plans, approving experimental licenses to increase public Wi-Fi capacity, and finally taking seriously the potential for traffic spikes and snarls at internet-exchange points,” she said.

Meanwhile, USTelecom President and Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Spalter assured Congress in a letter that “[b]roadband providers are laser focused on making sure the innovative networks they built and manage are ready to accommodate a prolonged reliance on telework, distance learning and other forms of high bandwidth remote communications.”

He added, “As of this writing, in communities where a large population of workers are being told to stay home, we have not observed time shifted traffic exceeding peak network capacity. Similarly, providers have not reported material congestion or internet latency issues. These are the network capacity metrics we are monitoring around the clock to assess how the infrastructure is tolerating the internet’s changing business, education and social uses.”

In a statement about Chairman Pai’s announcement, NCTA President and CEO Michael Powell said, “Today, the FCC Chairman issued a call to action by asking all internet service providers to pledge to ‘Keep Americans Connected.’ Our member companies intend to answer that call and are immediately working to implement responsive changes in policies and services that will ensure that America’s small businesses can continue to operate and an unprecedented number of people can work and learn from the safety of their homes. This is a challenge, but one that our industry will strive mightily to meet.”

Incompas CEO Chip Pickering said, “Rising to the challenge and meeting the moment. That is the message our small, competitive local broadband and communications service providers are sending today by joining the FCC pledge to ‘Keep Americans Connected’ during the Coronovirus challenge. Without question, broadband is a critical, lifesaving service for our customers. Local providers serve schools, hospitals, health clinics, small businesses and families that depend on fast reliable internet access and communications services now more than ever.”

CCA President and CEO Steve Berry said, “CCA members care about the health and safety of their customers. I thank Chairman Pai and the Commissioners for their commitment to ensuring consumers and small businesses maintain connectivity, through efforts like the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, as the nation weathers the coronavirus pandemic. The ability to connect with public safety, educational resources and family is absolutely critical during this time, and I thank the Commission for keeping the public interest top of mind. We will continue to work with the FCC, Administration, and Congress on this and other measures to address the pandemic crisis.”

NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield said, “NTCA appreciates the leadership of the FCC as it seeks to sustain essential voice and broadband connections in the face of the current national emergency. NTCA and its members look forward to working with all the commissioners, other policymakers, and other stakeholders in a collaborative effort to help ensure that the mission of universal service in rural America continues to be realized and furthered.”

ACA President and CEO Matthew Polka said, “The challenges facing our country require a new level of teamwork between broadband service providers and government. We at ACA Connects endorse Chairman Pai’s ‘Keep Americans Connected’ pledge, and we know that all ACA Connects members are committed to helping their communities stay strong amid so much uncertainty.”

Mr. Polka added, “As part of their daily operations, many of our members have already taken steps to accommodate increased and unique demands by their customers and their communities during this period of social distancing brought on by the coronavirus outbreak.”

CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker said, “The wireless industry applauds Chairman Pai and the Administration for taking important proactive steps to keep Americans connected. We’re committed to serving our customers and continuing to provide access to the world’s most reliable wireless networks.”

WISPA said, “WISPs know what it takes to bring and sustain essential connectivity to the hardest to reach, the unserved and the underserved. Six million rural Americas depend on them 24-hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. As small businesses themselves, it is in their community-focused DNA to keep every customer connected. Always. We do not know what lies ahead, but WISPA vows its steadfast support to Keeping Americans Connected throughout this time of crisis.”

In announcing its commitment to the pledge, Verizon said that it “is pledging to use the power of connectivity now to help keep the nation’s economy moving forward. Equally important, it’s focused on the future, beyond this current crisis, as reflected in Verizon’s announcement yesterday that the company is increasing its capital investment guidance from $17 to $18 billion to $17.5 to $18.5 billion in 2020.”

CenturyLink said, “At CenturyLink, we know our customers are counting on us to keep our network running so our children can continue to learn and the world’s businesses can continue to run efficiently. We stand ready, willing and able to meet our customers’ near-term and long-term needs and are prepared to ensure traffic flows smoothly across our network, regardless of increased demand. We will waive late fees and will not terminate a residential or small business customer’s service for the next 60 days due to financial circumstances associated with COVID-19. Today, we committed to the FCC’s ‘Keep Americans Connected Pledge’ outlining these actions. We are also suspending data usage limits due to COVID-19.”

Charter said it would “offer free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi access for 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students who do not already have a Spectrum broadband subscription at any service level up to 100 Mbps”; “partner with school districts to ensure local communities are aware of these tools to help students learn remotely”; continue to offer its Spectrum Internet Assist discounted broadband service for eligible low-income households without school-aged children; and “open its Wi-Fi hotspots across our footprint for public use.” It added that “Spectrum does not have data caps or hidden fees.”

T-Mobile said it would give current T-Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile customers with data plans unlimited smartphone data for the next 60 days (excluding roaming); give T-Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile customers an additional 20 gigabytes of mobile hotspot and tethering service for the next 60 days; provide an extra 5 GB of data per month for subscribers of its Lifeline partners over the next two months; increase the data allowance to schools and students using its EmpowerED digital learning programs to ensure each participant has access to at least 20 GB of data per month for the next 60 days; and offer free international calling for current T-Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile customers “to Level 3 impacted countries.”

Meanwhile, Dish Network Corp. said it would provide “its entire portfolio of 600 [megahertz] spectrum to T-Mobile at no cost for 60 days. The step was taken as the nation responds to the spread of COVID-19, which has led to the closure of businesses, schools and large gatherings coast to coast.”

“DISH is proud to support Americans’ personal and professional connectivity needs during this challenging time,” said Jeff Blum, Dish’s senior vice president–public policy and government affairs. “As we take this step, we’d like to thank the FCC for their leadership on the technological needs arising as a result of the virus, including the increased need for broadband access to help consumers respond to the impact of COVID-19 on daily life.” —Lynn Stanton, [email protected]

MainStory: FederalNews FCC BroadbandAdoption PublicSafety

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