Internet usage has peaked as more folks stay at home to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus—and in the UK, all major telecom companies this weekend struck a deal with the government to lift all data caps on fixed broadband services. That’s in addition to the companies introducing generous mobile and landline packages, on top of offering alternative forms of communication for vulnerable customers who may be self-isolating if repairs can’t be carried out. This is good, and frankly, all American internet service providers should follow suit if they haven’t already.
The participating UK telecom firms include BT/EE, Sky, TalkTalk, O2, Vodafone, Openreach, Virgin Media, Three, Hyperoptic, Gigaclear, and KCOM. According to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport, the companies are also pledging to give support to those who are having trouble paying bills due to covid-19. Among the “generous” packages providers have agreed to offer, some include low-cost data boosts and free calls from landlines or mobile phones.
It’s not that American broadband providers aren’t doing anything—they are—but the covid-19 measures that have rolled out aren’t uniform. For example, AT&T said it was waiving data caps on home internet earlier this month, while Verizon agreed to do so for home broadband services while bumping speeds for some mid-tier FIOS services at no extra cost. But Verizon isn’t lifting data caps for mobile customers who don’t already have unlimited plans, and Comcast and CenturyLink are only suspending data caps for 60 days. You can also check out this breakdown of some of what the major carriers are doing, per Consumer Reports.
While many companies are doing some sort of combo of waiving fees, boosting speeds, free installations, and suspending data caps to help individuals and small businesses, many policies so far come with a time limit of 30 to 60 days. As of right now, it’s unclear how long the pandemic will last, but from a healthcare perspective, this crisis could last 18 months. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci has stated repeatedly that a vaccine is at least a year away. Despite President Donald Trump stupidly touting that business would be back to usual by Easter, he’s since backtracked and extended federal social distancing guidelines through the end of April. Many of us are already three weeks into extreme social distancing—and the end of those 30-60 day timelines will be here before we know it. Maybe they’ll extend these policies, but it’s not guaranteed they will.
Earlier this month, 18 senators wrote a joint letter asking the U.S.’s largest ISPs to suspend data caps and associated fees, as well as throttling in areas impacted by covid-19. The Federal Communications Commission also called on ISPs to join the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, which was signed by over 60 companies. The pledge makes it so that ISPs won’t cut off service to residential or small-business owners, while waiving late fees and opening wifi hotspots. However, it only asks that telecom providers do so for 60 days. Notably, it also doesn’t ask companies to eliminate fixed broadband and mobile data caps—which is why some ISPs haven’t.
That might be fine if you could just choose your ISP or switch to one offering a more generous covid-19 policy if you’re in need. But because America is America, not everyone has a choice of who their provider is. Switching ISPs, if you even could, was a hellish nightmare before the pandemic. Even with more generous installation and sign-up packages being offered now, it’s unlikely that the process has improved. Meanwhile, rural America is notoriously underserved when it comes to broadband, a problem that is only exacerbated by the current crisis.
Considering what’s at stake—and how more and more Americans need stable, high-speed internet for teleworking and remote learning—it seems like a no-brainer that all ISPs should commit to suspending data caps and eliminating late fees for the duration of the crisis‚ however long that is.