Jun 23, 2020 - Technology

End of broadband pledge could cut lifelines for families

Illustration of scissors cutting cords connected to various computers

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Internet service providers' pledges to waive fees and forgive missed payments end on June 30, likely cutting off service for some families who can't pay their bills due to the economic impact of the pandemic.

Why it matters: Cutting off internet service for families and students will worsen the loss of knowledge and academic skills that students face over the summer, as well as sever lifelines for those who need broadband connections for work, summer school, searching for jobs and getting news.

Context: In mid-March, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asked ISPs to commit to not cutting off service to consumers and businesses who were unable to pay service bills or data overage or late fees during the height of the pandemic.

  • The FCC said Friday that pledge would end June 30, but Pai asked providers not to disconnect customers and instead allow them to set up payment plans.
  • "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," Pai said in a statement.
  • Pai also sought funding from Congress to help Americans remain connected as the industry transitions out of the pledge commitments.

Where it stands: Starting July 1, major national providers will end fee forgiveness and set up payment plans to collect outstanding balances, while following the FCC's lead in saying it's now Congress' responsibility to help close the digital divide.

  • AT&T said 156,000 customers used the pledge, and will have until the end of June, or 90 days from their initial past-due date, to pay off past-due balances or make other payment arrangements.
  • Comcast is offering extended payment plans of up to 12 months for customers unable to pay their bills as part of its Xfinity Assistance Program. (Comcast is still giving new customers 60 days of free internet service through its Internet Essentials program). A spokeswoman said about 80% of customers have already worked with the company to move out of of the assistance program and onto plans that meet their budgets.
  • Verizon said the hundreds of thousands of customers who enrolled in the pledge will automatically be enrolled in a repayment program beginning in July.
  • Charter said it will forgive a portion of delinquent outstanding balances for customers who sought suspension of collection due to the pandemic. The company said it expects to provide free internet connectivity for 60 days to more than 400,000 students and others through a remote education offer it launched in March.
  • T-Mobile said it will look at "individualized options, including payment plans" to work with consumers who are unable to pay.

Between the lines: With the FCC declining to extend the voluntary commitment, ISPs have political cover to start collecting broadband-related charges they had been forgoing for more than three months.

  • But given the adverse impact of the digital divide on low-income Americans and communities of color, the public backlash for cutting off services could be more painful than continuing to take the hit to their revenues.
  • Cable companies are also seeing an increase in cord cutting during the pandemic, putting the pay-TV bundle at risk.

Our thought bubble: Congress hasn't included funding to pay for broadband bills in its previous COVID-19 packages. Senate and House Republicans last week announced principles for a legislative framework to expand broadband access, but that's a long way from providing immediate funding.

What's next: The consequences of disconnected service will be worse come fall, when many schools and colleges will still be relying on remote learning.

Go deeper: Students face summer without devices or WiFi

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