The lawmakers’ interest stems from scattered local reports over the past few months that their constituents have been disconnected — along with growing fears that Internet providers may seek to raise prices or put new caps on home Web usage. Earlier this year, the Federal Communications Commission worked out a voluntary arrangement with the country’s telecom giants to help people stay online amid the pandemic even if they cannot pay their bills on time. But that agreement expired over the summer, and Democrats say it remains unclear how well, if it all, it actually worked in practice since the Trump administration did not collect any data on its implementation.
Congressional lawmakers since then have approved $7 billion in new federal broadband aid, much of which it has set aside as part of an emergency rebate program that will provide discounts to low-income Americans. But the program may not be ready until February at the earliest, leading Democrats to demand answers now from broadband providers so that they can gauge if they need to act quickly to deliver another round of relief.
“We hear reports from the district that people are losing their Internet service, kids are lacking education as a result, businesses are suffering,” McNerney said in an interview. “The companies made a pledge. We know it expired, but we don’t see [if] that pledge has been honored — we don’t know.”
“There are people already susceptible to being cut off, or have been cut off, who are hurting,” he added.
The Democratic lawmakers’ new inquiry could set the stage for significant new Washington work toward expanding high-speed Internet access, perhaps making it more affordable, and closing the country’s pernicious technological gap, known as the digital divide. The inequality historically poses its greatest harm to Americans in rural areas and people of color in cities nationwide. More than 8 million households, containing nearly 17 million children, may lack access to modern-day Web connectivity, according to an analysis commissioned by the Alliance for Excellent Education, the National Urban League and other advocacy groups issued in August.
Democrats long have sought to boost federal investments in broadband, but their efforts have grown only more urgent since the pandemic shuttered much of the U.S. economy. With the party soon to control the levers of power in Washington — the House and Senate, as well as the White House — lawmakers soon may have the ability to bring their ambitious digital agenda into fruition. President-elect Joe Biden similarly has called for billions of dollars in new broadband aid, adding to the potential for reform.
For now, Pallone, the leader of the tech-focused House Energy Committee, joined McNerney and Doyle, two of the panel’s key members, in firing off a battery of questions to Internet providers this week. They asked nine broadband companies, including Altice, Charter, Cox and T-Mobile, to detail their participation in the government’s earlier, voluntary shut-off moratorium, called the “Keep Americans Connected” pledge. They also asked if those companies have raised prices since the pandemic began, changed service to introduce new caps on data or offered special help to Americans in financial distress.
Publicly, roughly 800 companies including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon say they adhered to the FCC’s pledge. The agreement called on providers to refrain from shutting off business or residential customers who could not pay, for example, and suspended potential late fees. The pledge took effect mid-March and concluded at the end of June, though some companies say they have preserved the availability of low-income Internet access programs to help people in need.
“We have been at the forefront of keeping our customers and communities connected, working to close the homework gap and bridge the digital divide by making broadband more accessible and affordable," AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris said in a statement, adding they are reviewing lawmakers’ letter.
But Democrats say it’s been difficult to assess how well these companies have been able to help their customers who are falling behind. In a letter to the carriers Monday, the three lawmakers took special interest in Comcast, citing public reporting that it would start charging the heaviest Internet users in the Northeast more. Comcast has said most users would not be affected by the new policies, but the move still has sparked widespread criticism, including on Capitol Hill.
“This is an egregious action at a time when households and small businesses across the country need high-speed, reliable broadband more than ever but are struggling to make ends meet,” Pallone, McNerney and Doyle wrote in their letters.
Comcast, for its part, said it still offers 60 days of free service to low-income Americans as part of its Internet Essentials program. It also raised its speeds for those customers and negotiated agreements with school districts and other institutions so that they can pay for students’ broadband connections. Sena Fitzmaurice, a spokeswoman for Comcast, added that the telecom giant began imposing data caps in other parts of the country before the pandemic — and the policy only recently has been extended to the Northeast.
The FCC declined to comment.
In collecting the information, Pallone said lawmakers could seek to authorize additional stimulus aid, including a potential “prohibition on disconnection.” Democrats included the shut-off ban as part of the $2 trillion coronavirus aid package they adopted in the House last year, though the idea ultimately was abandoned as part of the year-end deal signed by President Trump in late December. McNerney, meanwhile, said Democrats also could specifically seek to boost funding for a federal program that helps schools get students online, known as E-Rate, to help children stuck at home during the pandemic.