The Communications Workers of America (CWA) and consumer advocacy groups sent a letter today to major broadband CEOs urging them to lift data caps, waive data cap fees, and take other steps to help the American public stop the spread of the novel coronavirus and facilitate access to essential communications services for all. Groups signing the letter include Common Cause, Consumer Reports, Fight for the Future, Free Press, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, MediaJustice, National Consumer Law Center, National Hispanic Media Coalition, New America's Open Technology Institute, Public Knowledge, The Utility Reform Network, and United Church of Christ, OC Inc.
“The telecommunications industry must do more to protect consumers and facilitate connectivity during the novel coronavirus pandemic,” the organizations wrote.
“Connectivity is essential during times of crisis, and during an infectious disease crisis in particular,” the organizations wrote. “In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials have recommended ‘social distancing,’... This guidance will require a significant shift to tele-work, tele-medicine, and tele-education. This shift necessitates far more bandwidth than under normal circumstances.”
The groups make the following recommendations for Altice, AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter Communications, Comcast, Cox Communications, Frontier Communications, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon:
Lift all data caps and waive all data cap fees for all customers -- wired and wireless -- including the current practice of throttling the capacity of “unlimited” plans after customers exceed certain data use thresholds;
Remove barriers to immediate access to service plans, including any waiting period to enroll (e.g., 90-day period without a broadband subscription) and the disqualification of those with past or current arrearages with the company; and
Share with the FCC data collected on the number of customers served, by what packages, and where expanded services were provided during the emergency, especially data on the impacts of raised data limits on service quality and network management or any challenges raised by waiving waiting periods. This information can help the FCC manage connectivity challenges associated with the pandemic, including identification of critical-need communities and network weaknesses, and help the government prepare for future crises. The FCC should also make this information available to the public, with appropriate safeguards for privacy and data use, to help communities address the pandemic with the best available data.
“In this collective time of crisis, we are asking broadband CEOs to show leadership by lifting data caps, waiving fees, and doing everything within their power to help people connect to the world from home and stop the spread of COVID-19. People’s lives are depending on it,” said CWA President Chris Shelton.
"Consumer Reports is encouraged with AT&T's announcement to suspend data caps for its fixed internet service and Comcast's intention to boost its internet service speeds, in addition to offering free service to low income households during this crisis,” said Consumer Reports Senior Policy Counsel Jonathan Schwantes. “Other internet service providers (ISPs) and wireless carriers have announced similar measures and agreed to honor FCC Chairman Pai's "Keep America Connected Pledge" last week. Not only are these actions pro-consumer, they're a no brainer and all ISPs and wireless carriers can and should do more to give consumers relief during this crisis where many of us will be working from home for weeks, if not months. Consumer Reports calls on all internet service providers and wireless carriers to suspend data caps, boost internet speeds, and provide free or discounted service for those consumers most in need."
"Many broadband providers have stepped up to answer the unprecedented challenge that Covid-19 presents, but the industry must do more,” said Matt Wood, Vice President of Policy & General Counsel for Free Press. “While the FCC has given up much of its authority to order these kinds of necessary steps, all ISPs should join those that have already lifted data caps and eased sign-ups to low- and no-cost plans for the duration of the crisis."
"If this experience with the COVID-19 pandemic shows us anything, it is that when there is political will inside and outside the FCC, it can take action to work to make sure all Americans have access to affordable high speed broadband,” said Chris Lewis, President & CEO of Public Knowledge. “My hope is that we learn from this period so that we can muster the will that has been absent in recent years to take action in non-emergency periods to ensure all have access. This letter points the way forward towards that goal."
"At a time when our nation is at near lockdown, it is blindingly clear that working and learning from home is not a realistic option for those who are under-connected or disconnected from the internet at home, like the Latinx community,” said Willmary Escoto, Director of Policy & Government Affairs, National Hispanic Media Coalition. “Right now, the internet is the ultimate tool for families to stay healthy while continuing to earn money, keep up with school work, and access life-saving information. No one's health or safety should hinge based on whether or not they can pay for a top tier communications service or not. Today we join CWA and our allies in asking industry actors to do the right thing, to choose compassion, and to lend a hand to Americans who are struggling to afford the internet service their families need during these uncertain times."
"It's never been more clear that Internet access should be a basic right. It's an essential utility like water or electricity. Big telecom companies can and should do more to help during this crisis. And as a society, we should see this as a wakeup call and a moment to push back against these companies' monopoly power and exploitative practices for the long term," said Evan Greer, Deputy Director of Fight for the Future.
“National emergencies like this one bring the inequities in access to high quality, reliable communications into stark relief,” said The Utility Reform Network (TURN) Managing Director-San Diego Christine Mailloux. “While TURN appreciates the short-term and voluntary measures offered by some of the larger carriers, our request today acknowledges that consumers need meaningful, consistent and reliable safeguards that will ensure all households have the tools to effectively do their part to help address this health crisis. TURN also hopes that this experience will create opportunities for analysis and lessons learned that will fuel efforts to implement meaningful and permanent public policy change that supports fair, affordable, and equitable access to robust communications services by all Americans.”
"This crisis is shining a bright light on the importance of connectivity and telecommunications access for everyone,” said Joshua Stager, Senior Counsel, New America's Open Technology Institute. “It shouldn't take a pandemic to realize this, but ISPs must ensure fair and reliable access to the internet. They cannot go about business as usual, nickel-and-diming customers and avoiding public accountability. America's ISPs need to rise to this challenge, and they need to do it immediately."
“Overnight, a huge proportion of our day-to-day life has moved online,” said Cheryl A. Leanza, Policy Advisor for the United Church of Christ’s Media Justice Ministry, OC Inc. “Families all over the country are scrambling to use communications technology more intensely than ever before. Our nation's communications providers are to be commended for stepping up so quickly in the fact of this unprecedented need. The most vulnerable people must be at the forefront of this effort. We strongly urge all communications companies that do not have them to initiate programs for low-income people and for existing programs to eliminate barriers preventing them from using these programs. Ninety day waiting periods and prohibitions for consumers with past-due fees ignore the realities of families already struggling to get by. At times of great need, corporate partners can step up and do more.”
“We are in this together and through the measures requested in this letter, companies can help low-income households stay connected to essential communication services needed for transferring so much of outside daily life to the home during this COVID-19 crisis,” said Olivia Wein, Staff Attorney at the National Consumer Law Center.