Equity & Access

Education Leaders Push for Changes to Keep Americans Connected Pledge

So far, 723 telecommunications companies large and small have signed the Federal Communications Commission's "Keep Americans Connected" pledge. In response to the COVID-19 stay-at-home mandates, the pledge was an effort by the FCC to encourage companies to help the communities they serve by promising:

  • Not to terminate the services of residents or small businesses due to lack of bill payment, during the disruptions created by the pandemic;
  • To waive late fees; and
  • To open WiFi hotspots to anybody who needed them.

Although it's not part of the pledge, a fair number of participants have also agreed to provide free internet service, including equipment, for a limited time to families that don't already have it, particularly if they have students attending school remotely.

But according to a growing movement, many of those same companies — and especially the largest ones — need to "remove fine print from the internet pledge." As former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wrote this week in the Washington Post, some companies are withholding free access service from families who have outstanding bills or other debt problems with the company. "The result is that too many of the poorest families still fail to qualify for the free Internet programs supposedly designed for them."

Duncan, who now works as a managing partner at the social impact organization Emerson Collective, cited the case of Comcast, which, according to Broadband Now, serves broadband to almost 112 million people in 40 states through XFINITY. When educators and others banded together to circulate an online petition in Oakland, CA, requesting that the company eliminate its "Internet Essentials" program stipulation that free internet was barred from any family with a debt of more than a year old, the company back-tracked there. Now, Comcast has gone nationwide with that largesse, publicly stating that households anywhere in the country with outstanding debt would still be "eligible for Internet Essentials," if they apply and are approved by May 13, 2020.

Some of the same participants of that initial success are now taking their activism directly to the FCC. A more recent petition, which currently has 13,112 signatures, is asking FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, "to urge all internet providers to provide free internet to ALL low-income families, even if they have prior debts or have applied for service previously."

Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit network of state and district education leaders, has already brought up the issue. In late March, the organization sent a letter to Pai, encouraging him to request an addition to the pledge: to "waive policies that require people to pay off any outstanding balance in order to restore their internet service."

As Duncan noted in his opinion piece, "A simple update to the Keep Americans Connected Pledge would cue the nation's Internet providers to follow Comcast's lead and waive prior debts." He also suggested that those companies eliminate the restrictions "excluding families who subscribed to service within the past 90 days."

There has been no official response. The FCC holds a virtual open commission meeting tomorrow, April 23, and the topic of the pledge doesn't appear on the agenda.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.