The Covid-19 pandemic has put the broadband industry in unchartered waters. Service providers are starting to announce steps aimed at confronting the sudden and severe crisis, while politicians and the FCC are suggesting what technical and financial measures they believe should be taken.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is urging ISPs to boost speeds, lower costs, delay disconnects, offer billing relief and make WiFi hot spots free. Pai outlined his call by asking broadband providers to agree to a “Keep Americans Connected Pledge.”

Two FCC Commissioners outlined their views about the telecom Covid-19 response in press releases on Thursday. Geoffrey Starks laid out the job ahead for telecommunications service providers. He said providers can expect an onslaught of traffic that will include significant increases in tele-education, telecommuting, telemedicine and activity related to tele-understanding medical information. Not mentioned but clearly a big issue will be the increased use of broadband to entertain folks who can’t or don’t want to leave their homes.

Starks wrote that the FCC should consider expediting waivers and experimental licenses that could expand network capabilities, award grants for capacity upgrades in impacted underserved communities, encourage providers to waive data caps, create WiFi capacity by temporarily authorizing use of the 5.9 GHz band, offer low-cost options for basic connectivity and deploy cell sites on wheels (COWs) and other portable platforms to unserved communities.

Starks also backs deployment of a “connectivity and economic stimulus” plan to leverage and expand the Universal Service Fund and increase funding in the Lifeline program.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel echoed Starks’ proactive approach with a special focus on citizens on the wrong side of the digital divide. “We have an opportunity to confront this challenge head-on and we need to act with urgency,” she said in a statement.

Broadband Covid-19 Response
The broadband community is showing signs of a proactive response, though it seems likely that more significant steps are in the pipeline. Among the steps taken so far:

  • Comcast announced changes to its Internet Essentials program on Thursday. New customers will be given 60 days of free service and speeds for all subscribers to the program – old and new – will increase from 15 Mbps downstream/2 Mbps upstream to 25 Mbps downstream/3 Mbps upstream
  • AT&T is waiving data overage fees for customers who still have such contracts
  • Cox has activated its Business Continuity Plan. The plan’s goals are to ensure continuation of services and establish ongoing communications between key stakeholders as scenarios unfold
  • Verizon announced that for the next 60 days, it will waive late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus. In addition, the company will not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to disruptions.
  • CenturyLink announced it will waive late fees and will not terminate a residential or small business customer’s service for the next 60 days due to financial circumstances associated with COVID-19.
  • DISH announced it will offer it’s entire portfolio of 600 MHz spectrum at no cost for use on T-Mobile’s network to increase capacity for the next two months.
  • Charter announced it will offer free Spectrum broadband and Wi-Fi access for 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students who do not already have a Spectrum broadband subscription and at any service level up to 100 Mbps. The company will also open up its Wi-Fi hotspots for public use.
  • Sparklight announced it will be making unlimited data available on all internet services for the next 30 days and waiving late fees for its customers for the next 60 days.
  • Update: Numerous carriers, too many to list here, have since accepted Chairman Pai’s pledge since this post was originally published.

Pressure will continue to build. Eighteen Democratic members of the House of Representatives sent a letter Thursday to CEOs of Cox, Altice, Frontier, T-Mobile, CenturyLink, AT&T, Verizon and Comcast expressing concern about the availability of broadband to people struggling with the digital divide.

“Specifically, we ask that you temporarily suspend broadband caps and associated fees or throttling for all communities affected by COVID-19 and work with public school districts, colleges, and universities to provide free, or at-cost, broadband options for students whose schools close due to COVID-19 who don’t have access at home,” the letter said.

NCTA reacted to the crisis on behalf of its member operators. “To date, our members in local areas most affected by the outbreak have reported modest, but manageable changes in consumer internet usage,” the posting reads. “We remain vigilant in monitoring and managing network performance around the clock and are confident that our networks will perform well in adapting to any changes in consumer behavior that may result as a consequence of a community’s response to COVID-19.”

NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association responded to Pai’s call to action by noting its “members are confident that their robust rural networks are as well-positioned as any to help ensure students can continue to participate in online education and that workers can continue to perform their jobs from remote locations.” NTCA noted that many of its members, who serve primarily rural markets, have already agreed to Pai’s pledge.

Of course, the path of the pandemic itself will be the biggest factor in how well the infrastructure holds up. There appear to be some reasons to believe networks will be resilient within that context: The growth of the cloud has made corporate and enterprise networks more decentralized, and extraordinarily sophisticated telework and tele-education tools and platforms have proliferated. Decades of serious albeit short-lived emergencies – the September 11 attacks and various hurricanes – have enhanced the ecosystem’s planning for emergency communications.

This post has been updated.

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