By The Washington Post · Tony Romm · TECHNOLOGY, ENTERTAINMENT, HEALTH
The commitments came Friday as part of a pledge orchestrated by the Federal Communications Commission, whose chairman, Ajit Pai, said the vast disruptions caused by the deadly outbreak make it "imperative that Americans stay connected"
As part of the so-called "Keep Americans Connected Pledge," nationwide telecom giants including CenturyLink and T-Mobile and more regional providers across the country agreed for the next 60 days that they would not terminate service or assess late fees on customers and businesses that fall behind on their bills. They also agreed to open wi-fi hot spots to any American who needs them.
The announcements offer the latest illustration of the the vast, immediate impact of coronavirus. The malady has shuttered businesses and schools, where workers and educators fear mass gatherings may hasten the disease's spread, and it threatens to overwhelm the U.S. health system as sick Americans seek much-needed tests.
To some, the Internet offers a solution: Allowing people to work, learn or talk to their doctors over tools like video chatting made possible by high-speed connections. But not everyone has, or can afford, such speedy, modern connectivity. Only about two-thirds of people in rural areas, for example, say they have broadband connectivity at home, according to the Pew Research Center, which published its findings last year.
The FCC devotes billions of dollars annually to spur the expansion of broadband networks in the most remote or neglected parts of the country, and it offers a slew of programs meant to help schools and parents afford much-needed devices to get online. But some lawmakers and regulators say it hasn't been enough, and they have called on the U.S. government in recent days to redouble its efforts in the wake of coronavirus.
"We are going to explore the expansion of tele-work, tele-health and tele-education," said Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic commissioner at the FCC, during a congressional hearing this week. "In the process we are going to expose some really hard truths about the digital divide."
The FCC pledge announced Friday comes in addition to steps taken by individual companies in recent days as coronavirus has evolved into a pandemic. AT&T, for example, said it would lift the monthly data limits it imposes on some home broadband customers. And Comcast said it would raise the speed of customers who are part of its low-income broadband program.