Carriers Pledge to Keep Americans Connected

US telecom providers band together for the common good

Last week, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) called on telecom providers in the country to aid citizens who are out of work or school because of the coronavirus outbreak by preserving their phone and Internet service if they cannot pay their bills.

Telecom providers including AT&T, Comcast, Spectrum, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon as well as regional players in the US agreed not to terminate service or charge late-payment fees for the next 60 days for individuals and businesses that fall behind on their bills. FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, called it an “imperative that Americans stay connected” during the pandemic. Given the speed of developments and the need to stay informed, imperative is certainly not too strong a word.

The measure comes at a time when major sporting events, concerts and other large gatherings have been cancelled to help slow the spread of the virus. Like in many other countries affected by the outbreak, government agencies, companies and schools in the US are instructing people to work and study remotely. Several organizations are asking employees to work from home, schools are trying out new online distance learning tools, and doctors are relying on video calls to offer patients help remotely.

Such services, unthinkable even a decade ago, are made possible by high-speed Internet connections. These social distancing moves are a necessary response to help combat and contain the pandemic, which has resulted in more than 245,000 confirmed cases and caused more than 10,000 deaths worldwide.

The public health crisis is expected to cause a spike in the need for access to home broadband and connectivity. To help address this, telecom providers in the US have relaxed their data caps. For example, AT&T said it would lift the monthly data limits it imposes on some subscribers to its home broadband plans. T-Mobile will suspend data caps for the next 60 days, providing customers with 20GB of additional hot spot and tethering data. Comcast has pledged to make its Xfinity Wi-Fi hot spots free throughout the US, promising not to waive late-payment fees and not to disconnect customers’ Internet service if they’re unable to make payment. Comcast also announced it will increase the speed of its Internet Essentials tier, which is targeted at households on low income.

These moves will also help those living in rural communities, who have faced a digital divide even before the start of the outbreak. The FCC devotes billions of dollars each year to spur the expansion of broadband networks in the most remote or neglected parts of the US, but enough has not been done, and some lawmakers have called on the government in recent days to beef up its efforts in the wake of Covid-19.

Although it’s difficult to find a silver lining in this global crisis, it’s worth pointing out that things are different this time. During past pandemics, there were few options for people to stay informed or technologies enabling them to work remotely. The past few weeks highlight the vital need for connectivity.