During a global pandemic where millions of people have stayed indoors to halt the spread of coronavirus, the internet has become a lifeline for people working from home, students continuing their educations, patients seeking telehealth care, and activists organizing for justice for Black lives.
Even as many states work through stages of reopening, none of us can afford to be disconnected. Millions are suffering job and income losses and can’t afford to pay their internet bills to stay connected. The FCC acknowledged this when it urged internet service providers to sign a voluntary pledge committing to, among other things, halting all service suspensions for customers who can no longer afford their internet service.
But while hundreds of ISPs have taken the pledge, people are still being disconnected. The Daily Dot filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see all 498 complaints submitted to the FCC related to this non-binding pledge — and the stories shared are heartbreaking.
Forced offline in a crisis
One mother wrote that she didn’t pay her bill since she was counting on the pledge to keep her family connected during these hard times. But then her ISP cut off service, and she was forced to sacrifice money intended for groceries to get her four boys back online for school.
An elderly customer in New Jersey was cut off from her telemedicine appointments for failing to pay her full internet bill — and then her provider told her the only way she could resolve the issue was to go online. Others report being disconnected without notice, having their internet service held hostage for debt payments and having to contend with ever-shifting demands to “prove” their eligibility for relief.
How can this still be happening? The trouble lies with the pledge itself.
While we’ve commended the FCC for doing something to encourage companies to keep service intact, the fact remains that the agency doesn’t have the power to enforce any of the terms of its pledge. What’s more, not every ISP has adopted the pledge, or implemented it in the same way.
For customers, that means navigating complicated bureaucratic hurdles when they’re already in crisis.
Has your ISP taken the pledge? Do you have to notify them that you can’t afford your bill? Do you have to prove that your inability to pay is related to COVID-19? Which service number do you call? Do you have time to navigate phone trees and long hold times to find the answers to these questions even as you’re coping with the economic stressors that made it impossible for you to afford your bill?
This environment creates confusion, and that confusion has serious consequences for people’s lives. Our communities need a clear and enforceable moratorium on all internet shutoffs. The FCC can’t readily do it — in Chairman Ajit Pai’s headlong rush to get rid of strong Net Neutrality rules, he also threw out the agency’s strongest authority to protect internet users in times of crisis.
This is why it’s crucial for Congress to step in.
A congressional moratorium
In May, the House passed the HEROES Act. In addition to offering a substantial benefit to help struggling families afford internet service, the bill would prohibit internet and phone companies from disconnecting people who can’t pay their bills during this crisis. The legislation would vastly improve on the FCC’s non-binding promises.
We need Congress to step into the role of protecting internet users — a role that the FCC has abdicated. The devastating stories of people being forced offline in a crisis are heartrending and unacceptable. And these are only the stories we’ve heard. How many more people are struggling through a connectivity blackout, unable to file an official FCC complaint?
It’s time to lift up those stories, and to honor them with action. The Senate must take up this call to implement a national moratorium on internet and phone service shutoffs.