Friday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai sent a letter to Congress seeking legislation to help consumers and small businesses stay connected over the coming months after the end of the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. While the pledge expires June 30, Pai told lawmakers he asked carriers and other providers not to disconnect customers who are behind on their bills because of the coronavirus pandemic. He asked them to offer the option of extended payment plans and deferred payment arrangements in July. Pai also asked providers to maintain and expand their plans for low-income families and veterans as well as their remote learning plans for students.
“The Pledge has been an extraordinary success, and I commend the 785 service providers that have stepped up to the plate over the past three-and-a-half months to do the right thing during this national emergency,” Pai said. “But broadband and telephone companies, especially small ones, cannot continue to provide service without being paid for an indefinite period of time; no business in any sector of our economy could.”
That’s why he’s asking lawmakers to support the Broadband Connectivity and Digital Equity Framework proposed by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) and House Energy and Committee Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR). He called their framework a forward-thinking proposal to ensure that all Americans remain connected until the pandemic ends.
In calls that Pai held with broadband and telephone service providers this week, many companies reported they have already committed to taking steps to keep Americans connected in coming months. They are placing customers into pro-rated 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.
For example, Charter is waiving a portion of the past due balance for customers who weren’t able to pay their broadband bill due to the pandemic. Comcast is keeping its WiFi hotspots open to anyone who needs them through the end of the year. Starry is providing free service to customers in low-income housing through the end of July. And Verizon is automatically enrolling customers who signed up for the pledge into a program that will allow repayment of past due balances over time.
The FCC began the Keep Americans Connected Pledge on March 13, and later extended the voluntary initiative to June 30. Nearly 800 broadband and telephone service providers agreed 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 WiFi hotspots to any American who needs them. In addition to these commitments, several companies took additional steps to maintain or expand connectivity during the pandemic.
Echoing the Chairman’s remarks that smaller carriers are being hit hard by the expenses of the Pledge, Competitive Carriers Association President Steve Berry said the association supports the effort.
“CCA supports the goals of the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge, as the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of maintaining connectivity more than ever before. All CCA carriers care about their customers and have been going above and beyond during this challenging time,” Berry emphasized. “CCA members, especially those serving rural America, will continue to be innovative in keeping their employees on the job while taking steps to keep their customers connected, and we look forward to working with the Commission and Congress to ensure every American, no matter where they live, work, or travel has access to robust mobile broadband services.”
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