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Despite Coronavirus Pledges, Customer ISP Issues Persist

By Kelcee Griffis
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Law360 (April 24, 2020, 2:09 PM EDT) -- Some prominent internet service providers have not removed key barriers to web access despite promises to keep customers online amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to complaints filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

Law360 analyzed 450 consumer complaints related to the coronavirus — obtained through a public records request — that indicate some ISPs are not consistently honoring the voluntary, industrywide pledge to suspend service disconnections and to make internet access more attainable while many Americans are struggling to pay their bills.

The FCC first rallied internet providers in mid-March to assure customers they will continue service even if their bills are overdue, waive late payment fees and open Wi-Fi hot spots to anyone who needs them during the outbreak. As of mid-April, the FCC said over 700 companies had signed onto this pledge.

But even if corporate policies ostensibly favor struggling customers, at least isolated complaints reported to the FCC indicate that the promises can break down on the customer level.

Out of roughly three months of coronavirus-related FCC complaints analyzed by Law360, about 40% pertain to service disruptions, disconnections and other ISP-related barriers to internet access. Other complaints touched on so-called fake news about the pandemic on the airwaves, technical problems with broadcasts of the daily White House briefings and false advertising for predatory "services" such as HVAC cleanings and bogus virus cures.

In comments filed during the last two weeks of March, over 150 customers begged the FCC for help with carriers including AT&T, Comcast Xfinity, Charter's Spectrum and Optimum. Some complained that ISPs demanded payment of past bills or exorbitant service fees before they could get connected.

For example, when an Ohio parent called to take advantage of Spectrum's advertised offer to "waive any installation or pre-payment fees" for students opening new accounts, the prospective customer ultimately was quoted an exorbitant connection charge.

The customer said they were originally informed they qualified for the discounted service, but two days before the scheduled installation, the complainant reported Spectrum said the installation would in fact cost $3,530 and would be delayed by more than a month.

"It is very frustrating ... at this time of emergency, when my children are having to receive their education from home and are not able to access high-speed internet," the customer wrote. "To require such an outrageous installation cost during a national crisis is an outrage."

Another Spectrum customer in North Carolina wrote that, despite the cable and internet provider's stated promise of a 60-day billing suspension, the company gave her less than 10 days to pay up. In the meantime, the customer said they are being "harassed by nonstop automated calls and text messages" about the disconnection threat.

"During this time, to add more stress is crazy," the customer wrote. "They should honor their pledge to the public."

Similarly, a school therapist in Massachusetts reported to the FCC that Spectrum is "refusing to offer services now to families with outstanding balances, which does not help reach families in need."

Other customers reported receiving mixed messages from advertisements that suggested they'd be eligible for free or reduced-cost internet promotions only to be told the offer doesn't apply to them.

A frustrated customer in Louisiana wrote that she called seeking to take advantage of a 60-day offer from AT&T only to be put on hold "for an extremely long time." The customer service representative eventually told the customer that the offer does not apply to prepaid customers. This didn't seem to satisfy the customer, who wrote to the FCC: "Clearly that is not the truth nor does it stipulate that in the customer offers."

The inconsistencies also appear to extend to hot spot access points. An Illinois resident reported that Comcast prompted people for payment when they tried to log onto supposedly now-free Xfinity hot spots.

Several ISPs did not respond to Law360's requests for comment, and cable and internet trade group NCTA said it does not comment on customer matters that pertain to individual members.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told reporters on a Thursday call that the Keep Americans Connected pledge now covers about 90% of U.S. consumers. He called the carriers' widespread adoption "a testament to the accomplishment of our infrastructure policies over the years."

He also pointed out that many carriers have chosen to go beyond the voluntary pledge and offer increased speeds, suspended data caps and new low-cost plans for families.

According to Pai, he's personally been working with the FCC's Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau to ensure that providers are following through with their promises, so that "the pledge is meaningful to consumers across the country."

However, FCC Democrats have suggested that their agency should investigate these anecdotal instances of coronavirus abuses more aggressively.

"These companies stepped up with pledges, and I expect them to be honored," FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said in a statement to Law360. "We should take these consumer experiences seriously and make sure the parties are staying true to their word."

State attorneys general are taking notice, too. On Wednesday, 27 state AGs wrote a letter to the FCC asking it to extend the connectivity pledge until August and expand it to include no data caps or overage charges, among other elements.

The companies should also reconnect customers they recently dropped due to payment issues and implement "fair and reasonable" payment plans for overdue balances, according to the letter. It's not reasonable to expect people to pay their bills in full as soon as the pledge time frame runs out, the letter said.

"A company should not immediately take debt collection action against these consumers or attempt to impair their credit when, through no fault of their own, they were unable to pay their bills due to the disruption caused by this pandemic," according to the attorneys general.

--Editing by Rebecca Flanagan.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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