After deregulatory blitz, FCC scrambles to prevent ISP abuse during pandemic
Under pressure from the Federal Communications Commission, Internet service providers today pledged to waive late fees and keep customers connected when they miss payments due to the coronavirus pandemic. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced that many ISPs signed his “Keep Americans Connected Pledge.” But while the pledge prevents disconnections and late fees, Pai was unwilling or unable to convince ISPs to waive data caps during the pandemic.
The full pledge reads as follows:
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.
Home-Internet and mobile providers that signed the pledge include Altice, AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Frontier, Mediacom, Sprint, T-Mobile, TracFone, US Cellular, Verizon, and Windstream. Dozens of others signed as well (see full list).
“I don’t want any American consumers experiencing hardships because of the pandemic to lose connectivity,” Pai said, while urging all broadband and phone service providers to sign the pledge. ISPs that already signed “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,” he said. Pai spoke with ISPs and industry representatives yesterday in order to secure the pledges.
Pai’s announcement said he “also called on broadband providers to relax their data cap policies in appropriate circumstances.” But the pledge doesn’t include any data-cap promises. AT&T yesterday said it is waiving home-Internet data caps during the pandemic, helping to illustrate a point we’ve made over the years: that monthly data caps and overage charges are for raising profits and do little, if anything, to manage congestion. But Comcast, the biggest home-Internet provider in the US, hasn’t promised to waive data caps during the pandemic.
Pai also asked telephone carriers “to waive long-distance and overage fees in appropriate circumstances,” and said ISPs that serve schools and libraries should “work with them on remote learning opportunities.” Pai added that “all network operators [should] prioritize the connectivity needs of hospitals and healthcare providers.” But those measures are not included in the pledge.
Led by Pai, the Republican-majority Federal Communications Commission gave up its authority to restrict data caps and other anti-consumer practices in late 2017 when it repealed net neutrality rules and deregulated the broadband industry. That vote also eliminated requirements for ISPs to be more transparent with customers about hidden fees and the consequences of exceeding data caps, and it lifted a ban on “unjust or unreasonable discrimination” in broadband rates, practices, and services. Stripping away these regulations made it harder for the FCC to guarantee affordable broadband.
Most of Pai’s other major initiatives as chairman have also focused on deregulation, including changes that made it easier for ISPs to turn off old copper networks without any replacement other than mobile service, which is often poor in rural areas.
Today’s FCC action not enough, some say
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, called the pledge “a welcome first step” but said that “data caps and overage fees… need to be lifted and eliminated.” Rosenworcel’s statement also said that ISP pledges and FCC programs should be adjusted so that “even more Americans can get online during this crisis at little or no cost.”
Harold Feld, an attorney and telecom-industry expert who is senior VP of consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge, praised industry action such as AT&T suspending home data caps and Comcast boosting its low-income service. But Feld also wrote that “this is no substitute for real action and leadership at policy level.”
The FCC should collect data during the pandemic about “how our networks respond in a crisis like this. We need to know whether traffic surges, and if we can handle it,” Feld continued. “This is not to punish or shame companies, but because we need real data. We will very much need to know where the bottlenecks occur and who are the impacted populations and why. We can speculate, but we will want real data so we can mitigate going forward.”
Rosenworcel also urged the FCC to do more to connect school kids and hospitals. “Schools are closing and so many students are being told that their classes are migrating online,” she said. “We can use our universal service powers to provide hotspots for loan for students whose school doors have closed. We need to act immediately so that no child is offline.”
The FCC should also “get to work on connecting hospitals and patients just as the FCC did in the wake of Hurricane Katrina,” and “work with health care providers to ensure connectivity for telehealth services are available for hospitals, doctors, and nurses treating coronavirus patients and those who are quarantined,” she said.