By Gigi Sohn
As America struggles with a deadly and historic health crisis, millions of Americans risk getting kicked offline due to economic hardship. At a time when stable access to power, broadband, and water are essential for survival, government agencies tasked with representing and defending the public welfare have been asleep at the wheel.
Millions of Americans risk losing access to essential utilities as overdue bills pile up thanks to the COVID-19 crisis. With only 21 states prohibiting utilities from disconnecting impacted users, roughly 179 million Americans risk losing these essential lifelines as bills pile up and their economic woes accelerate.
It’s a problem that extends to broadband connectivity. Data suggests Americans pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for broadband. The pandemic has exacerbated the problem, forcing countless students and teleworkers to huddle around fast food restaurants because broadband isn’t available, or isn’t affordable, in their neighborhood.
While millions of Americans face a mountain of growing utility bills — they’ve seen little help from the federal government.
Back in March the Trump FCC announced with great flourish that it had solved the problem with its “Keep Americans Connected” pledge, an entirely voluntary agreement with broadband providers who agreed they wouldn’t impose late fees or kick users offline during the crisis – at least temporarily.
Despite signing the pledge, some of the nation’s largest ISPs proceeded to ignore it entirely, kicking struggling and some instances even disabled users offline, despite repeated assurances this wouldn’t happen. There was little effort by the FCC to confirm ISPs were living up to the pledge or other pandemic-related promises, such as making Wi-Fi hotspots available to the public, suspending arbitrary bandwidth usage caps and overage fees, and creating or expanding low-cost broadband offerings for low-income Americans.
Despite an accelerating pandemic, the hollow pledge came and went quickly, expiring quietly at the end of June with little fanfare and no substantive FCC action. When pressured by Congress as to why the agency hadn’t done more, the agency punted the problem back to Congress, stating it could only act if lawmakers gave broadband providers more money.
So what were the results of the Keep America Connected pledge and the other promises ISPs made to address the pandemic? Nobody knows. The FCC doesn’t bother to collect data on how many broadband subscribers have been kicked offline during the pandemic due to non-payment. It doesn’t have a clue how many Americans have been disconnected as they face economic collapse, and there’s little to no indication that the agency under Trump has any intention of learning.
Nor does the FCC know whether any of the promised low-cost broadband offerings have made a dent in the tens of millions of Americans who lack broadband either because they can’t afford it, or because they don’t have access to a broadband network at all.
To make matters worse, the Trump FCC has eliminated FCC legal authority over broadband providers and popular consumer protections that would have protected U.S. consumers from bogus fees, surprise surcharges, and predatory behavior during the crisis. Without legal authority over broadband providers, the agency can’t hold any of those companies to their promises — they can simply walk away without penalty. Many already have.
Pinky swears simply aren’t adequate to ensure that struggling Americans can work, learn, have access to health care, and communicate during an historic crisis.
The Communications Act of 1934 gives the FCC ample flexibility to ensure the public is protected during a national emergency. But when it comes to broadband internet access, this FCC is powerless by choice, leaving consumers crippled by debt facing the loss of essential services.
The Biden FCC must make restoring the FCC’s authority over broadband providers its first priority. It is essential to ensuring that all Americans remain connected during this crisis and the inevitable crises to come. It is also essential to protect consumers from price gouging, account termination, privacy violations and unfair market practices.
The next FCC must also collect more accurate data about who does and doesn’t have broadband and why they don’t have it. The FCC’s current data grossly overstates the number of Americans who have access to broadband and doesn’t take into account the principal reason many don’t adopt broadband – cost. When the broadband industry makes promises to protect consumers and close the digital divide, the impact should be documented and made public.
Press releases and promises won’t close the digital divide – effective policies and strong oversight will. The American people deserve an FCC that’s committed to ensuring that everyone has access to affordable and robust broadband.
Gigi Sohn is a Distinguished Fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Technology Law and Policy and a Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate. She served as Counselor to Former FCC Chairman from November 2013-December 2016.