As part of the so-called “Keep Americans Connected Pledge,” nationwide providers including CenturyLink and T-Mobile and more regional telecom companies across the country agreed for the next 60 days that they would not terminate service or assess late fees on customers and businesses that fall behind on their bills. They also agreed to open wi-fi hot spots to any American who needs them.
In doing so, Pai also urged the telecom industry to take additional steps on their own, such as relaxing the caps they impose on their customers’ monthly data allotment and providing more aid to hospitals and schools -- though the FCC did not require phone and internet providers to take such steps.
The announcements offered the latest illustration of the the vast, immediate impact of coronavirus. The malady has shuttered businesses and schools, where workers and educators fear mass gatherings may hasten the disease’s spread, and it threatens to overwhelm the U.S. health system as sick patients seek much-needed tests. So too does it pose a challenge to Americans’ finances, and with it, their ability to connect with friends, loved ones and colleagues online.
But some said the FCC could have done more to help families, schools and hospitals in the greatest need. Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic commissioner at the agency, described the pledge Friday as a “welcome first step,” but added the government needed to “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,” she said in a statement.
With coronavirus wreaking widespread havoc, some have turned to the internet for a solution. Businesses are allowing employees to telework, schools are trying out new online-based distance learning tools and doctors are relying on video chatting to offer patients help from afar. All of those services -- unthinkable decades ago -- are made possible by high-speed connections.
But not everyone has, or can afford, such speedy, modern connectivity, an inequality known as the digital divide. Only about two-thirds of people in rural areas, for example, say they have broadband connectivity at home, according to the Pew Research Center, which published its findings last year. As a result, the disruptions wrought by coronavirus threaten to impact some communities greater than others.
The FCC devotes billions of dollars each year to spur the expansion of broadband networks in the most remote or neglected parts of the country, and it offers a slew of programs meant to help schools and parents afford much-needed devices to get online. But some lawmakers and regulators say it hasn’t been enough, and they have called on the U.S. government in recent days to redouble its efforts in the wake of coronavirus.
The issue arose at a series of congressional hearings this week, where lawmakers questioned whether to divert critical, new federal dollars to helping people get online. Geoffrey Starks, a Democratic commissioner at the FCC, called in response for a new “connectivity and economic stimulus” package to address coronavirus. It could include emergency grants to help libraries and other institutions lend out wireless hot-spots to help kids access speedy, reliable internet, he said.
“Everyone in the telecommunications sector must step up. The time is now,” he told lawmakers.
The FCC pledge announced Friday comes in addition to steps taken by individual companies in recent days as coronavirus has evolved into a pandemic. AT&T, for example, said it would lift the monthly data limits it imposes on some home broadband customers. And Comcast said it would raise the speed of customers who are part of its low-income broadband program.
So far, Verizon said it “has not seen any measurable increase in data usage.”