America’s largest internet providers have been asked to provide details of any price hikes or broadband restrictions they have placed on captive internet users during the pandemic.
In a letter from House Commerce Committee chairman Frank Pallone (D-NJ), as well as the chair of its technology subcommittee Mike Doyle (D-PA), the lawmakers cite the case of Comcast placing new data caps on internet users to ask the other ISPs what they have done to their customers.
Clearly Pallone and Doyle suspect broader restrictions and profit-seeking against millions of Americans stuck at and working from home. They make it plain they aren’t happy about it.
“This is an egregious action at a time when households and small businesses across the country need high-speed, reliable broadband more than ever but are struggling to make ends meet,” the letters to Altice, AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Frontier, T-Mobile and Verizon note.
At the start of the pandemic in March, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Ajit Pai asked internet and telephone providers to sign a “pledge” that they wouldn’t cut off late-paying customers and wouldn’t charge late fees to anyone impacted by the economic crunch.
It proved surprisingly popular, with more than 800 companies and organizations signing up to it in order to publicly demonstrate a communal spirit during difficult times. However the pledge came with a cut-off date, and that landed last week. It did not go unnoticed.
“With the expiration of the FCC’s pledge, and the passage of time, some companies have already started to abandon the policies they adopted in the early days of the pandemic even though COVID-19 continues to surge throughout the nation and millions of Americans remain unemployed or under-employed,” reads Pallone and Doyle’s letter [PDF].
It goes on: “One major internet service provider is raising prices on its internet plans and re-imposing - and expanding the reach of - data caps on home internet plans.” They mean Comcast - it’s always Comcast.
The problem, as the Congressmen point out, is that the pandemic is still very much with us. In fact, infection and deaths rates are several times the size of the early days of the pandemic and vaccine rollout is not going as fast as hoped, so internet connections are more critical than ever.
“Over the last ten months, internet service became even more essential as many Americans were forced to transition to remote work and online school. Broadband networks seem to have largely withstood these massive shifts in usage,” the letter states.
“Unfortunately, what cannot be overlooked or underestimated is the extent to which families without home internet service - particularly those with school-aged children at home - have been left out and left behind.”
There is nothing that lawmakers can do of course to force ISPs to lower prices, or remove caps, or waive fees - except ask embarrassing questions. And that’s exactly what the letter does: “Did your company participate in the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected” pledge?” reads the first.
Then it asks: have you increased prices, do you plan on increasing prices? Did you have a data cap prior to March 2020? How about now? Have you disconnected any customers? Do you have a plan for low-income households? And so on.
With the Democrats in charge of both chambers of Congress and the presidency in just over a week, the message to ISPs is clear: how about you stay clear of making additional profit while the pandemic is on. Broadband providers will now have to balance that business benefit with the pain of politicians pointing at and condemning their behavior. ®