Wireless providers sign FCC pledge to keep customers connected

FCC asks companies to open public Wi-Fi hotspots, waive late fees during virus outbreak

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, says broadband connections are vital during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, says broadband connections are vital during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted March 16, 2020 at 5:12pm

Nearly 70 telephone and internet companies including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint have signed a pledge to keep communications networks for Americans open during the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

The pledge, circulated by the Federal Communications Commission, asks companies not to terminate service to residential or small businesses who are unable to pay bills because of the outbreak. It also asks companies to waive late fees and open Wi-Fi hotspots for public use.

“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 FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement. “Broadband will enable them to communicate with their loved ones and doctors, telework, ensure their children can engage in remote learning, and — importantly — take part in the ‘social distancing’ that will be so critical to limiting the spread of this novel coronavirus.”

Pai also announced that the commission would grant T-Mobile special authority to use expanded spectrum in the 600 MHz band to help customers remain connected to their schools and offices during the outbreak, during which “social distancing” has been advised.

The commission also voted to provide the Rural Health Care Program with an additional $42.19 million in funding “to help ensure that healthcare providers have the resources they need to promote telehealth solutions for patients.”

“This is a critically important step that the FCC took today, particularly in light of the coronavirus pandemic,” Pai said. “COVID-19 presents serious challenges to healthcare providers, and they need every tool in the toolbox at their disposal, particularly the enhanced connectivity that enables them to provide vital healthcare services to the American public.”

Meanwhile, two Democratic lawmakers want President Donald Trump to earmark $1 billion in emergency funds for students who lack home internet access and are not currently in school because of the coronavirus.

In a letter to Trump on Friday, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., asked for the emergency declaration funds to be used to issued to schools and libraries so they can purchase Wi-Fi hotspots for students who cannot participate in schooling from home. Between 11 million and 12 million school-age children lack home internet access, according to most estimates.

“Schools in urban and rural areas are racing against the clock to develop and implement plans that allow their students to learn from home because of the novel coronavirus,” Meng said in a statement. “But for those students who lack broadband access, they will continue to suffer because of the ‘homework gap.’”

The lawmakers also called on Trump to order the FCC to use its universal service powers to ensure connectivity for unconnected students. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a chief proponent of closing the homework gap, echoed the sentiment.

“Schools are closing and so many students are being told that their classes are migrating online,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “We can use our universal service powers to provide hotspots for loans for students whose school doors have closed. We need to act immediately so that no child is offline.”