Vermont Bill Would Help Pay COVID-19 Telecom Bills

Vermont is looking to help residents who are behind in their payments connected to broadband during the COVID-19 crisis, in the process helping ISPs who have been carrying those customers without compensation during the pandemic. 

Related: Pai Tells Senate He Is Happy to Help ISPs Recoup 'Pledge' Costs

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told a congressional panel this week he would be happy to work with legislators on finding a way to help ISPs, particularly smaller providers, who agreed not to cut off service for nonpayment during the pandemic. 

More than 750 ISPs promised to do so as part of the FCC's Keep Americans Connected pledge. The FCC adopted its connectivity pledge March 12, then extended it to June 30. Virtually all the major ISPs and many of the smaller ones--over 750 in all--signed on to that pledge. 

Asked during the hearing whether the FCC expected ISPs to absorb the costs or go back to the customer once the pledge expired, Pai said that was up to the company and that the FCC's focus was on keeping folks connected.

But Vermont is looking to beat them to the punch by using some of its CARES Act Covid aid funding for broadband, both extending it and keeping the public connected. 

One of the bill's goals is to "redouble efforts to go where the market is not," which means funding efforts to close the rural digital divide for telehealth and remote learning and working. But much of that money is going where the market went, which was floating customers who couldn't pay so they wouldn't lose broadband service. 

Of the $43,068,500.00 in the bill going for "broadband connectivity and other initiatives," $20 million goes "to fund ratepayer arrearages as they pertain to utilities affected by the Public Utility Commission’s moratorium on utility disconnections issued on March 18, 2020," according to the bill language. 

According to Rep. Marty Feltus, a prime mover behind the bill, that money applies to telecommunications bills as well as elecricity, gas and water.  

ISPs doing business in the state, and thus in line for some funds, include Cox, Comcast, CenturyLink and AT&T. 

The bill passed a "second reading" Thursday (June 18), according to Feltus, after which a housing-related amendment will be added, then a second package of economic relief. "Then it will voted be on the final time, probably tomorrow," said Feltus. 

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.