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FCC's Keep Americans Connected pledge is over. Now what?

Internet service providers' promise to not cut off customers who can't pay their bills and to waive late fees officially ends.

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The FCC's Keep Americans Connected Pledge officially ends today. 

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

The coronavirus crisis in the US rages on, but many broadband and wireless customers who are struggling to pay their bills may no longer benefit from a promise service providers made to the Federal Communications Commission to keep them connected and to waive late fees. 

The commitments from more than 750 broadband and wireless companies to not cut off service and to waive late fees as part of the FCC's Keep Americans Connected pledge officially ended Tuesday.

While many of the nation's largest service providers say they will work on an individual basis with customers who are unable to pay their bills due to a loss of a job during the COVID-19 crisis, they will no longer be abiding by the pledge. 

This comes at a time when COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, continues to rapidly spread across the country. Several states in the US are seeing surges in COVID-19 cases, with the country topping 40,000 new daily cases in recent days, according to Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking the spread of the virus. Some states, including Texas and Florida, have paused or rolled back reopening plans as the number of new cases rises.

Meanwhile millions of Americans have lost their jobs as a result of businesses closing due to the pandemic. In early June, it was reported that nearly 43 million people had filed for unemployment in the US during April and May. That equates to roughly one in four American workers. A survey from the Economic Policy Institute in April estimated that figure is lower than the true number of Americans out of work: Millions more people could have filed if unemployment processes were easier. 

The pledge

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recognized early on in the pandemic that the economic strain resulting from historic job losses could leave millions of Americans without connection to the internet at a critical time when schools were shutting down and forcing students to learn online and employers were requiring workers to remotely. 

In March, Pai asked US wireless carriers and internet service providers to pledge to waive late fees and disconnections amid the coronavirus pandemic for 60-days. In April, he asked all who had committed to the pledge to extend it until June 30

In addition to promising not to cut off service to residential and small business customers who couldn't pay their bills, these carriers also promised to waive late fees due to the coronavirus pandemic and to open their Wi-Fi hotspots for free so anyone can use them.

More than 750 service providers signed on to the voluntary pledge. It's important to note that none of the companies were compelled to comply with any part of the pledge. And there have been complaints from some consumers, who say carriers haven't lived up to the pledge. Pai was asked about this on a May teleconference call with the House Energy & Commerce Committee.  At that time, he acknowledged that the agency had received roughly 500 complaints about the program. 

"It's my understanding that most of the complaints that we have received about the pledge have been resolved to ensure that the consumer remains connected during the pandemic," Pai said.

The FCC declined CNET's request for further comment on the complaints. 

What's next?

In a letter to Congress on June 19, Pai expressed concern for consumers still unable to pay their bills after the Keep Americans Connected pledge ends. He said he asked companies not to disconnect consumers and small businesses who are behind on their bills in July, due to the coronavirus pandemic. And he added he encouraged these companies to allow customers to extend payment plans and defer payment arrangements. He also asked providers to maintain and expand their plans for low-income families, and to keep remote learning initiatives for students. 

Several carriers and broadband providers have complied with his requests. 

Comcast said it will extend its 60 days of free internet for low-income households through the Internet Essentials program until the end of the year. It's also keeping public Xfinity WiFi hotspots open through the end of the year. The company has extended its offer of a $150 Visa card payment for college students through Sept. 30. The company also said that customers who haven't been able to pay their bills won't be cut off on July 1. And it plans to work with customers individually "to find the best payment options for them and keep them connected," a spokesman said in an email.

Charter described how it will help customers in a policy blog. It plans to offer repayment assistance to "work with our customers to find a plan that matches their needs and budget, including for qualified households, our affordable low-income broadband service Spectrum Internet Assist." The company said it will also forgive a portion of delinquent outstanding balances for customers who had "requested suspension of collections activities due to COVID-related financial impacts." It also plans to continue its  Spectrum Internet Assist program for low income families and senior citizens. It also will offer new small business customers a month of free service .

"Companies will continue to offer expanded low-income support programs and are forging new partnerships with schools and other groups affected by the COVID-19 crisis," said Brian Dietz, a spokesman for NCTA, the cable industry's lobbying group. "So, while the government pledge may be sunsetting, our relationship and commitment to our customers will not."

Verizon said that customers already signed up for the pledge will automatically be enrolled in the company's Stay Connected repayment program to provide options to stay connected.  

"We'll continue to work with customers to provide the best financial options available now and moving forward," a spokesman for the company said.

AT&T said it will waive data overage fees for home-internet service through Sept. 30.

But this waiver doesn't apply to data caps on DSL and fixed wireless services.