When Verizon first announced it was not only waiving late fees but tacking on offers of free high-speed data for low-income households hit by the current pandemic, it seemed like a welcome bit of good news amidst a news cycle that’s anything but. Now, it looks like that sigh of relief might’ve been premature—as detailed in a new Ars Technica analysis, this data—along with Verizon’s other offerings for its lower-income clientele—leave out some of the households hit the hardest.
Per Ars, it turns out that Verizon’s March 23rd announcement—which boasted “two months waived internet and voice service” fees for its low-income customers on its Lifeline plan, along with new, affordable plans aimed at this same customer base—only applied to customers on its fiber-optic network. It’s a small distinction, but an important one that cuts off the vast swaths of rural America that are still dependent on slower—and cheaper—digital subscriber lines, or DSL for short.
Verizon did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment. But it’s 60-day waiver only applies to Lifeline customers and Verizon acknowledges on its website that its DSL service doesn’t meet Lifeline’s standards and the program “is limited to Fios internet service at a speed of 18 megabits per second or above.”
This exclusion isn’t a coincidence. As far back as 2012, the company’s been siphoning off consumer access to standalone DSL services in favor of its pricer fiber-optic network—a move that was echoed by other major broadband providers like AT&T. But while Verizon still continues to shutter its DSL operations—moving tens of thousands of employees off of its wireline business in the process—there are still millions relying on these exact operations for basic internet. Recent figures out from a 2019 Purdue University study point to more than 120 million households still relying on DSL as their primary broadband source, compared to the roughly 42 million connecting via fiber-optic networks.
Even at its cheapest, Verizon’s FiOS service—which most recently clocked in at a cost of roughly forty dollars per month, can’t hold a candle to DSL, which can cost customers between $10 and $25 per month, according to recent numbers. For the money, DSL connections are notoriously slow, no matter how you slice it. Still, the Purdue team found that these dirt-cheap prices ultimately made it the most popular source of broadband out of the low-income homes surveyed, narrowly beating out wireless connections and cable modem-based access.
Now that everyone, regardless of economic status, has largely moved all of their lives online, those that are using these slower, legacy systems are feeling the brunt of it. And by discounting these legacy systems from their rollout last month, Verizon’s only continuing to entrench the users when those exact users need them the most. Right now, parents that are dependent on DSL are still using that achingly slow connection to look for jobs following wave after wave of coronavirus-induced layoffs. Meanwhile, their children are still dependent on it for their education. Verizon’s choice to offer these customers two months of waived fees rings hollow when the exact fees they’re waving are for a service that these same customers can’t necessarily afford in the first place.
Meanwhile, it’s worth pointing out that the two months of free service Verizon’s currently offering these households is hardly altruistic. As we pointed out previously, major telecom companies only came to this decision after FCC Chairman Ajit Pai asking them to take part in what he called the Keep Americans Connected Pledge, asking the major players to waive their fees and hold off on terminating services over the next sixty days. But even that announcement came a full day after more than a dozen U.S. senators called for these exact companies to suspend fees and data caps in light of the millions of people struggling with covid-induced financial instability.
Put another way, the FCC only offered to help the poor communities it’s historically shirked after being put into the national spotlight. Meanwhile, Verizon, one of the biggest telco’s on the planet, only offered to help these communities in a way that still leaves thousands—if not millions—without internet access. It’s enough to make the good-will efforts of all these players not only look disingenuous but downright half-assed, at best.