House Members Press ISPs on COVID-19 Readiness

A dozen prominent Democratic House members have written to the CEO's of the major broadband providers, cable and telecom, to ask how they are preparing for potential closures and disruptions related to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. 

Those closures and disruptions increased exponentially Thursday (March 12) with school closings and notifications of major teleworking efforts. 

The legislators are particularly concerned about those on the "wrong side" of the digital divide," including the some 12 million school-aged children without broadband in the home. 

They pointed out that even if they have a smartphone and wireless subscription, they could quickly exceed a data cap when trying to telework or use telehealth services, or monitor information about the virus. Then there is the issue of having to pay the broadband bill in a time of financial hardship. 

"As an operator of a network so critical to ensuring vital education, health, and employment continuity, we hope that you are thoughtfully considering all the ways you can serve the broader community during this worldwide challenge," they wrote. 

Anticipating that question, NCTA-The Internet & Television Association has said its members are doing just that, and Comcast already announced it would be providing free broadband for new low-income subscribers for 60 days and is boosting speeds at no additional cost. Verizon and AT&T have also weighed in on the issue. 

FCC chair Ajit Pai was getting out in front of the issue Thursday (March 12). He was on a conference call with ISPs urging them to lower costs and boost speeds given that the coronavirus is likely to drive more people online to work and study and get healthcare. 

FCC Democrats have called for suspending data caps.

NCTA: Cable Stepping Up to Confront Coronavirus

The legislators acknowledged efforts by Comcast and AT&T (which is suspending data overage charges) regarding "first steps" to support customers, and others who have been "thinking constructively." But they have want details, and ASAP. The letter asks for written plans, including timelines and dates, by next week, for, at a minimum: 

"Ways you are working with schools to ensure that students without access to broadband service at home will be able to participate in remote learning during school closures;

"Steps you are taking to connect those without broadband service at home, particularly with regard to low-income individuals and those who live in areas highly affected by COVID-19;

"Ways you are working with partners in private industry to identify connectivity needs unique to this threat, and solutions for addressing those unique needs;

"Steps you are taking to assist individuals facing financial hardship due to circumstances related to COVID-19 who are unable to pay their bills for internet and phone service, including by extending bill due dates, waiving late fees, and providing service at no cost for a short duration;

"Ways to address the potential for increased customer service calls if more people are relying on home broadband service for an extended period of time; and

"How to ensure that a significant shift of broadband usage from enterprise networks to residential connections for an extended period of time will not cause debilitating strain on the network."

Getting the letters were the CEOs of Cox, Altice, Frontier, T-Mobile, CenturyLink, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast. Sending the letter were Reps. Jerry McNerney, Mike Doyle, Lisa Blunt Rochester, Tony Cardenas, Yvette Clarke, Diana Degette, Anna Eshoo, Ben Ray Lujan, Doris Matsui, A. Donald McEachin, Jan Schakowsky and Peter Welch.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.