What Chairman Pai is Telling Congress About the End of the Keep Americans Connected Pledge

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Friday, June 26, 2020

Weekly Digest

What Chairman Pai is Telling Congress About the End of the Keep Americans Connected Pledge

 You’re reading the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society’s Weekly Digest, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) broadband stories of the week. The digest is delivered via e-mail each Friday.

Round-Up for the Week of June 22-26, 2020

Kevin Taglang

Just over 100 days ago, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai announced that a number of broadband and telephone service providers had volunteered to take what he calls the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. Over 780 companies took the pledge "in order to ensure that Americans do not lose their broadband or telephone connectivity as a result of these exceptional circumstances."

Taking the pledge, the companies committed 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.

When first announced, the pledge was to last until May 12, 2020. It was later extended to June 30, which is just around the corner. From all appearances, the pledge will not be extended. So, what happens next? Are broadband providers and federal policymakers committed to keeping us connected during the pandemic? 

Help For Providers

On June 16, Chairman Pai testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee's Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government. In written testimony, Pai touted the pledge, highlighting it as an example of the commission "deploying every resource at the FCC’s disposal to deal with this unprecedented national emergency."

During questioning, fellow-Kansan Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) expressed concerns about whether and how Congress could compensate broadband providers for their contribution to COVID-19 relief in the form of the pledge. 

Pai indicated that the FCC would be happy to work with Congress on a way to compensate the providers, particularly smaller, rural carriers, for lost revenues due to their pledge not to disconnect nonpaying customers during the pandemic. 

Asked what the cost to providers has been, Pai said he had had conversations with companies and associations that the pledge "can be a hardship." He said he did not have numbers for lost revenues, but would work with Congress to find a funding vehicle.

Of note, providers have only paused collections on customers because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic. As of this writing, those bills have not been forgiven. 

On June 19, Pai wrote to Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS), Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and other Members of Congress to urge legislators to provide help to broadband providers. He said, "these 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. Accordingly, the Pledge will expire as currently scheduled on June 30."

Even with the pledge expiring, Chairman Pai asked providers not to disconnect in July consumers and small businesses who have fallen behind on their bills. He asked the providers to instead put consumers into payment plans and deferred payment arrangements. He also asked the companies to maintain and expand their plans for low-income families and veterans as well as remote learning plans for students.

Pai reported that conversations with broadband providers have been fruitful with some companies committing to take new steps by 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.

Chairman Pai highlighted a few examples:

  • 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 Wi-Fi 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.
  • Verizon is automatically enrolling customers who signed up for the pledge into a program that will allow repayment of past due balances over time.

But Pai said he believes more needs to be done—by Congress. Pai asked Congress to provide in July additional funding to keep economically distressed Americans connected by helping them with their broadband and phone bills:

I believe now is the time for further legislation to ensure that doctors and patients, students and teachers, low-income families and veterans, those who have lost their jobs and livelihoods due to the pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns, those in our cities and those in the countryside—in short, all Americans—remain connected until this emergency ends.

What About Lifeline?

On June 24, Chairman Pai was again on Capitol Hill testifying before Wicker, Cantwell, and the full Senate Commerce Committee. Pai again touted the success of the pledge -- and the need to help the providers who have participated in it. 

At that hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) asked FCC Commissioners Michael O'Rielly and Brendan Carr about increasing funding for the FCC's Lifeline program which provides a discount on phone and internet service for qualifying low-income households. Lifeline is the most obvious existing vehicle for helping people stay connected during the pandemic. In mid-April, Blumenthal joined Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) and 25 colleagues in a request to add $1 billion to Lifeline's budget to better advertise and process applications, so that Americans know this program is available to help them stay connected.

This week, O'Rielly and Carr seemed hesitant. Commissioner O’Rielly said that he was not confident in the proposed number. “I’m not against more money,” he said. “I just don’t know how much more we’re talking about… I can’t tell you ... what the number is.” Similarly, Carr said, "I’m saying I don’t know if a billion dollars is the right number or the wrong number. Could be more, could be less."

At the same hearing, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called for broadband providers to extend the pledge -- and work with Congress if they need help. But Rosenworcel went on to propose more reform for the Lifeline program including updating standards for what Lifeline supports, revisiting eligibility criteria, and improving outreach to people eligible to benefit from the subsidy. More broadly, Rosenworcel called on the FCC to examine broadband data caps and overage fees. 

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks also called for Lifeline reform, noting that the program is underutilized and its benefits do not meet the needs of low-income consumers. Starks said he'd like to increase Lifeline’s voice and data offerings to meet the connectivity needs of low-income subscribers. He also thinks there could be better coordination between agencies that help the economically distressed so people are aware of and enroll in Lifeline. 

Legislation On The Horizon?

On June 18, Chairman Wicker and House Commerce Committee Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR) released their principles for a legislative framework to expand broadband access and digital opportunity and close the digital divide. Their framework calls for Congress to help close the digital divide by establishing programs so that anyone experiencing economic hardship as a result of the COVID pandemic remains connected and knows what resources are available. However, when Walden followed up with a legislative package of 26 bills aimed at closing the divide, none seemed to address helping people experiencing economic distress. Wicker offered his own bill, the Accelerating Broadband Connectivity (ABC) Act, which aims to accelerate rural broadband deployment, but not help low-income households.

In the House this week, Democrats, led by Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-SC) and members of the House Rural Broadband Task Force, offered legislation that would provide a $50 monthly discount on home broadband plans for low-income consumers and require an affordable option for internet service plans offered on the newly-built infrastructure. The Accessible, Affordable Internet for All Act (HR 7302) is expected to be included in more comprehensive infrastructure legislation, the Moving Forward Act, which could be voted on as soon as next week.

During the pandemic, as many as 25 million people have collected state unemployment insurance. If we're all to keep connected, now is the time to act.

We'll track any legislative efforts in Headlines.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton

Upcoming Events

July 16 -- July 2020 Open Federal Communications Commission Commission Meeting

July 21 -- PrivacyCon

July 29 -- Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee Meeting

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
727 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, IL 60202
headlines AT benton DOT org

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