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FCC chair asks Congress to help keep Americans online amid COVID-19

U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai urged Congress on June 19 to pass legislation to help consumers and small businesses stay connected to phone and internet services in the coming months.

In March, the agency asked broadband and phone providers to voluntarily pledge to keep Americans connected to services amid financial challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of providers took the pledge, with many offering additional free and low-cost services to qualifying households. Originally launched for just 60 days, the pledge was extended through June 30. Now, with the end date looming, Pai is asking Congress to get involved.

The pledge specifically states that a company will not terminate service to any residential or small-business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus. Companies also committed to waiving fees that any residential or small-business customer incurs because of economic circumstances related to the outbreak. Companies also said they will open Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.

Large providers — such as AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc., Comcast Corp., Charter Communications Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc. — have all committed to the pledge.

While the request from Pai indicates that the pledge will expire at the end of June, the FCC says Pai has asked companies to extend some protections through July. Rather than disconnecting consumers, he encouraged companies to offer the option of extended payment plans and deferred payment arrangements, the FCC said.

While Pai said in a June 19 statement that the pledge has been "an extraordinary success," he noted that "broadband and telephone 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."

Some rural providers have raised concerns about being able to remain committed to the pledge.

In an April letter to Congress, NTCA - The Rural Broadband Association, a trade group representing nearly 850 independent and community-based telecommunications companies, asked Congress to provide complementary funding for connectivity and create an emergency broadband program to help consumers facing economic hardship to pay their phone and internet bills. The association noted that the FCC's pledge is resulting in providers absorbing those expenses.

"Creating a program that provides dedicated funding to 'help cover' bills that go unpaid by such broadband users, therefore, represents a logical and necessary complement to the emergency benefit program ... and is ultimately essential to help ensure that broadband providers can 'keep the Internet lights on' throughout this crisis," wrote NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield in the letter.

Pai specifically endorsed policy principles released June 18 by two congressional Republicans, known as the Broadband Connectivity and Digital Equity Framework. Among other provisions, the framework would establish programs to help consumers experiencing economic hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic stay connected and learn about available resources, according to a news release from the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee Republicans.

The FCC also said in a June 18 news release that multiple providers have committed to helping American consumers stay connected in the coming months. For example, Charter will waive certain past-due balances on broadband bills for customers impacted financially by COVID-19. And Comcast will keep Wi-Fi hotspots open to anyone who needs them for the rest of 2020.

Comcast has also extended its free internet offer for new eligible subscribers to the end of 2020. The offer is open to those who qualify for the company's Internet Essentials program.

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