FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Friday voiced support for passage of legislation to help service providers respond to the COVID-19 pandemic as the Keep Americans Connected Pledge expires.

The voluntary initiative launched on March 13 and was extended until June 30. The letter sent by Pai to Congress seeks to put safeguards into law. In the letter, he told Congress that many service providers have agreed to continue helping their subscribers.

Steps include refraining from disconnecting consumers and small businesses who lag on July payments and offering extended and deferred payment arrangements. The FCC also asked that providers maintain and expand programs for low-income families, veterans and students.

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Pai noted in the letter that 785 service providers “have stepped up to the plate over the past three-and-a-half months to do the right thing” by agreeing to the Keep Americans Connected pledge. He said service providers have agreed to take steps going forward, including offering prorated payment plans of as much as a year, deferred device payments, and waivers of portions of unpaid balances. Providers also are working individually with subscribers “in cases of extraordinary hardship.”

Now, Pai wrote, is the time to help service providers carry the load. “[B]roadband and telephone companies, especially small ones, cannot continue to provide service without being paid for an indefinite period of time; no business in any sector of our economy could,” Pai wrote. “So I believe now is the time for legislation to ensure that doctors and patients, students and teachers, low-income families and veterans, those who have lost their jobs and livelihoods due to the pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns, those in our cities and those in the countryside—in short, all Americans—remain connected until this emergency ends.”

Pai endorsed The Broadband Connectivity and Digital Equity Framework, a proposal from Roger Wicker, the chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and Greg Walden, the Ranking Member of the House’s Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Last week, Pai told the Senate Committee on Appropriations that the Keep Americans Connected pledge could pose a hardship for some operators, especially those serving rural and low-income areas. In response to a question from Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kansas), Pai said that the FCC would be “happy to work with Congress if there is a funding vehicle that could enable [providers] to continue those connectivity requirements, which is . . . incredibly important.” He also said that he would “defer to Congress about the amount or appropriate vehicle” for any funding for the broadband providers.

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