In an effort to keep families connected as schools and workplaces close in response to the novel coronavirus, many Internet service providers (ISPs) are taking steps to make their services more accessible and functional for those of us who are staying home for the foreseeable future.
Some policies are being officially encouraged by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) through Chairman Ajit Pai’s new Keep Americans Connected Pledge. By signing onto the pledge, providers agree to open Wi-Fi hotspots to the general public and to not disconnect or charge late fees to those struggling to pay bills due to the pandemic.
To ensure people have sufficient connectivity during the public health crisis, some ISPs are going beyond the pledge’s requirements by raising speeds, suspending data caps, and offering free Internet access to certain households.
While these efforts will not close all of the digital divides being exacerbated the pandemic, they are an important step toward mitigating the immediate impact on families and businesses.
Keep Americans Connected Pledge
FCC Chairman Pai announced the Keep Americans Connected Pledge last Friday, March 13. The pledge calls on ISPs to make Wi-Fi hotspots publicly accessible and to keep households and small businesses that are facing financial difficulties because of the pandemic connected over the next couple months.
“As the coronavirus outbreak spreads and causes a series of disruptions to the economic, educational, medical, and civic life of our country, it is imperative that Americans stay connected,” said Pai in a press release [pdf] issued by the FCC. He also noted the importance of broadband access to enable remote work, online education, and telehealth appointments during periods of “social distancing.”
The press release, available below, shared the text of the pledge:
Given the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on American society, [[Company Name]] pledges for the next 60 days 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.
Within 24 hours, more than 70 companies signed onto the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, including national providers, such as AT&T and Comcast, as well as regional and local providers, such as GWI in Maine and UTOPIA Fiber in Utah.
What’s Your Provider Doing?
In addition to signing the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, many ISPs are unveiling other efforts to improve connectivity for families and businesses during the pandemic.
For example, AT&T, CenturyLink, and Comcast have suspended data caps on home Internet access. Charter Spectrum plans to offer free broadband access for 60 days to some households with students in grade school or college. Cox Communications will raise speeds for certain subscription tiers.
Local providers are also taking charge. OpenCape, a regional network that connects schools, hospitals, and other community institutions in Massachusetts, recently announced that it would upgrade subscribers’ bandwidth for free. CEO Steven Johnston said:
Offering schools, towns, hospitals and businesses the ability to utilize additional tools to host and share information remotely is an opportunity to help support organizations . . . We hope this assists our customers to decrease the need for human contact and direct interaction and to promote the social distancing that can help reduce the spread of disease.
For information and updates on specific companies' programs, visit Consumer Reports’ summary or the crowdsourced spreadsheet created by Digital Charlotte, or call your ISP.
UPDATE: Stop the Cap is also tracking low-cost Internet acccess offers in response to the Covid-19 outbreak.