Law360 (December 7, 2020, 6:30 PM EST) -- At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Federal Communications Commission pushed internet service providers to promise they wouldn't penalize customers who struggled to pay their internet bills when they needed connectivity the most.
More than 800 companies signed onto the Keep Americans Connected pledge, a commitment to not disconnect customers who were behind on their bills or charge late-payment fees that drew effusive praise from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
However, Law360 obtained and reviewed nearly 3,000 anonymized consumer complaints filed with the FCC between June and August and found that the pledge wasn't as broadly effective as the agency claimed.
Pai declared in an October speech that the private companies stepped up and "acted in the public interest." Although the pledges were voluntary and expired at the end of June, Pai said ISPs are likely to continue honoring them because they still face tremendous market pressure to treat their customers well during a time of national hardship.
"The market creates powerful incentives for companies to do the right thing in times of national crisis," he said in the speech. "If your company doesn't step up for you, or even worse, engages in bad behavior, you'll be much more likely to turn to the competition in the weeks, months, or years ahead."
But Pai may be placing too much faith in the market's persuasive power. Law360 identified about 550 cases in which consumers said they were disconnected or forced to pay exorbitant fees contrary to their providers' own representations.
In some instances, customers begged the providers to work out a way to keep them connected, citing relatives who recently died or were hospitalized with the coronavirus, or budget constraints due to pandemic-related layoffs. Others reported they struggled to keep their small businesses afloat amid nationwide closures and stay-at-home orders, saying ISPs only added to their woes.
Half of the six major ISPs mentioned in the complaints — Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T, Comcast, Cox Communications and Charter Communications — responded to Law360's requests for comment. Those that did — T-Mobile, Cox and Charter — offered responses that focused on the overall number of customers they were able to help instead of the times the pledge broke down.
For example, Charter said it connected nearly half a million student and teacher households with free internet for 60 days and has "forgiven $85 million in customers' overdue balances when they had a hard time paying bills due to COVID-related hardship."
T-Mobile said it "went well beyond the scope [of the] FCC Pledge" by implementing "individualized solutions, new programs and personalized payment options," as well as cutting the price of prepaid plans in half.
Still, consumer complaints showed that even instances that slipped through the cracks caused individuals a lot of difficulty.
In Missouri, a restaurant owner reported that Charter disconnected service in early June — before the pledge expired — over a one-month-overdue bill that totaled about $100. Charter did so without notifying the small business, according to the complaint, hobbling curbside brunch orders and causing the restaurant to take "a financial hit." The owner described Charter's actions as "incomprehensible."
Other small-business owners reported being hit with heftier financial demands from their ISPs than expected. A Texas couple that began running their small business from Maine at the onset of the pandemic said they ran out of data on their new AT&T hotspot in March, and within two weeks, the company disconnected their service.
When the couple contacted AT&T, the company said they actually had an unlimited data plan and reinstated their service, only to send them an $8,900 bill for overages later on.
"We have called over 12 times and have filed a request for arbitration as well as a COVID waiver," the couple told the FCC. "There has been zero response from AT&T."
Individual households shouldered the ISP-inflicted hardships as well.
A neuroscience researcher, who contracted COVID-19 while working in a Portland, Oregon, emergency room and was later laid off, told the FCC that Comcast disconnected their phone service for nonpayment while awaiting unemployment funds.
Some customers reported they were disconnected days before or immediately after the pledge ended June 30. Others reported that their provider used the pledge's end date as a threat to get them to pay delinquent charges in full.
"I shudder to think about the countless Americans who lost their jobs due to coronavirus and today were disconnected for owing one month['s bill]," a Santa Barbara, California, resident wrote, saying AT&T suspended internet service five days before the pledge expired and required both a back payment for June and a prepayment for July before it would restore the connection.
"How many people can afford that right now? These aggressive and predatory policies are being implemented on your watch," the customer wrote to the FCC.
Customers also expressed frustration that they didn't understand how ISPs were enforcing the terms of the pledge and said they were hit with surprise bills that inflated their costs beyond prepandemic levels once the promotions ran out.
Customers in New York, Arizona and Pennsylvania said ISPs promised extended or suspended data caps but did not inform them when they must start paying again for the increased capacity, resulting in bills that ranged from about $200 to $600.
A Mesa, Arizona, customer even expressed regret that they accepted help from Cox Communications.
"Now that the [$30 monthly] COVID discount is gone, I have a bill that is $30 higher than it was six months ago," the customer wrote in late July. "That is unreasonable to me. I would have been better off not having the COVID discount since it appears to me they off-set the discount by increasing the fees for the services I had."
Cox told Law360 in a statement that despite any misfires, it still exceeded its commitments to the FCC.
"From the early stages of the pandemic, we responded quickly to provide immediate relief to customers," a spokesperson said. "We not only committed to the FCC's Keep Americans Connected Pledge, but we also extended our commitment beyond the initial pledge."
Public interest advocates who spoke with Law360 acknowledged that while the pledge was voluntary, neither the providers nor the FCC have been transparent in reporting true results of the pledge's application.
"In part, it is a PR campaign. In part, there is some effort from the companies to uphold the pledge," said Yosef Getachew, program director with Common Cause. "This is where the FCC should have come in, conducted investigations and collected data to determine how many consumers were not being served by the pledge."
An FCC spokesperson told Law360 that nearly all consumer complaints submitted to the commission between mid-March and late October received a response from the provider. Still, questions surrounding the pledge's efficacy have gotten Congress' attention as well.
In September, U.S. Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., asked Pai to release more information about the consumer complaints. In response, the agency uploaded two pie charts to its website that lay out several categories of complaints it received, the largest of which was billing issues. However, the data contains no personal stories or details about whether and how the complaints were resolved, according to McNerney's office.
The congressman has again asked the FCC to make the complaints public. So far, his office said, the agency has remained quiet.
"During a pandemic in which nearly every aspect of our lives depends on connectivity, a proclamation that calls for voluntary promises is not enough," McNerney said in a statement to Law360. "One has to wonder if Chairman Pai was actually trying to help consumers or get good press for himself and industry."
--Editing by Breda Lund.
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