Low-income broadband — Comcast impresses, but deals from Verizon, Charter, and others have problems. Jon Brodkin – Apr 7, 2020 7:31 pm UTC Enlarge / A Verizon FiOS truck in Manhattan on September 15, 2017. Verizon is one of numerous home-Internet providers offering temporarily free service to low-income households during the pandemic. But a big…
Low-income broadband —
Comcast impresses, but deals from Verizon, Charter, and others have problems.
Verizon is one of numerous home-Internet providers offering temporarily free service to low-income households during the pandemic. But a big restriction on Verizon’s offer makes it impossible for many people to get the deal.
The Verizon problem is one of several that’s been pointed out by advocates for poor people at the nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). Charter, CenturyLink, and Frontier have also been labeled disappointments even as Comcast earned praise. The NDIA is maintaining a list of pandemic-related telecom offers. A similar group called EveryoneOn offers a search tool to find low-income offers by ZIP code.
Verizon on March 23 said it would provide two months of free home-Internet and phone service for current low-income subscribers in the Lifeline program and $20 monthly discounts for new low-income subscribers. The $20 discount lowers the starting price for 200Mbps Internet to $19.99 a month. But the broadband offers are available only on Verizon’s fiber-to-the-home FiOS service and not in DSL areas where Verizon never upgraded homes from copper to fiber.
When contacted by Ars, Verizon said “our DSL service does not meet the Lifeline program qualification standard,” referring to the 10Mbps to 20Mbps speed standards imposed by the FCC’s Lifeline program, which reimburses ISPs for discounts provided to low-income people.
But while the 60 days of free service applies to existing Lifeline customers, the $20 discounts for new FiOS customers apparently apply to low-income subscribers even if they’re not officially using Lifeline plans.
“We do appreciate that Verizon has a discount offer,” NDIA Executive Director Angela Siefer told Ars. “The discount offer is using Lifeline to verify eligibility, but [Verizon has] confirmed with us that it is not Lifeline, so why limit where the discount is available? Plus, Lifeline’s qualification standards allow for service to be provided at less than the [speed] standard if that is all that is available. By not including DSL, their most vulnerable customers are being left out of a valuable resource. This includes the low-income communities in underserved cities such as Buffalo and Baltimore.”
Verizon would probably rather not add more customers to its outdated DSL network. But the telco doesn’t upgrade areas to fiber when it determines the potential profits aren’t worth the investment, leaving people in DSL areas in a precarious situation.
By limiting its two-free-months offer to current Lifeline subscribers, Verizon is preventing poor people who didn’t previously sign up for service from getting free broadband during the pandemic. That’s in contrast to other ISPs that are giving free service to low-income subscribers who sign up now, in recognition of the pandemic’s impact on poor people who didn’t already have broadband at home because they couldn’t afford it. Verizon’s two-free-months offer is only available to customers who had a Verizon Lifeline plan as of March 20.
It isn’t just a few big ISPs making better offers. A North Dakota-based cooperative called BEK Communications is giving four free months of fiber service to new subscribers, for example.
About 73 percent of US adults have broadband at home, a Pew Research Center report says. “Racial minorities, older adults, rural residents, and those with lower levels of education and income are less likely to have broadband service at home,” Pew says.
Low-income access varies greatly by region
Verizon is among hundreds of ISPs that signed the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keeping Americans Connected” pledge, meaning they promised to waive late fees, to not terminate service when customers miss payments due to the coronavirus pandemic, and to open Wi-Fi hotspots to the public. But the pledge is voluntary, and the FCC’s hands-off approach to telecom regulation leaves the broadband industry in charge of whether to give low-income people access during the pandemic.
Aside from that pledge and pre-existing programs for low-income subscribers such as Lifeline, some major ISPs haven’t made any pandemic-specific offers to poor people. ISPs with no pandemic-specific offers of free or discounted service for poor people include CenturyLink, Frontier, and Cincinnati Bell.
Offers to hook up poor people during the pandemic thus vary greatly by region, depending on which ISP is dominant locally.
“We’ve looked at this every which way. We don’t see any alternative to a federal broadband subsidy during the health crisis,” Siefer said. “Setting aside all the ways that Internet keeps a household functioning during this health crisis, if people do not have Internet, they will certainly not stay in their homes. The digital divide is now a public safety issue.”
Advocacy group Free Press urged ISPs “to waive all billing for low-income households, seniors, furloughed workers, and households with public-school students who have been sent home due to school closures.”
When contacted by Ars, Frontier pointed to its pre-existing low-income programs such as Lifeline and said it “is working on a case-by-case basis with small businesses that may have been impacted or forced to close; school districts and rural healthcare facilities that may require additional bandwidth; and will continue evaluating options to assist customers through this difficult period.”
CenturyLink also pointed to its pre-existing low-income programs and said it is “suspending data usage limits for residential customers due to COVID-19.” That’s not actually a major change—while CenturyLink technically imposed a 1TB monthly limit, it didn’t charge overage fees.
When asked why it isn’t making special pandemic-related offers to low-income people, Cincinnati Bell told Ars that it “will not attempt to proactively build market share through special promotions that are aimed at our competitors and that consequently necessitate foot traffic from our field technicians.” However, the company told us that it has reconnected 400 customer accounts that were previously suspended because of late payments.
Siefer said Cincinnati Bell’s choice to “avoid new customer signups is shortsighted… community members in Cincinnati Bell territory who can’t bank, pay bills, or shop at home must go out to stores, ATMs, payment centers, and mailboxes. People who need medical care but can’t use telehealth tools are far more likely to show up at badly stressed emergency rooms and clinics or else go without care—which could be a deadly choice in this situation.”
Windstream is offering two free months to new Lifeline customers.
Comcast does “tremendous job”
AT&T—which has a similar mix of fiber and DSL offerings as Verizon, CenturyLink, Frontier, and Cincinnati Bell—has done more to help poor people through the public-health emergency that has caused millions of job losses and a huge increase in people working at home.
AT&T is offering two free months of home-Internet service to customers who order its low-income plan by April 30. After the free two months, prices are $5 a month for download speeds of 3Mbps or less and $10 a month for speeds up to 10Mbps. AT&T said it is also expanding eligibility to cover more low-income households and waiving data-overage fees.
“Other than the AT&T plan having slow speeds and not allowing those with bad debt to be eligible, we do not have complaints,” Siefer told us. “If a household has outstanding debt with AT&T for fixed Internet service within the last six months, they are ineligible.”
Comcast, of all companies, “is doing a tremendous job,” Siefer said. Comcast made its $10-per-month Internet Essentials plan free to new low-income customers for two months and raised speeds from 15Mbps download/2Mbps upload to 25Mbps/3Mbps. Comcast is also temporarily accepting low-income people into Internet Essentials even if they have outstanding debt owed to Comcast. Comcast also temporarily waived data caps.
Problems in Charter territory
Charter, the second-biggest Internet provider in the United States after Comcast, is giving new customers with children in school free Internet access for 60 days. But the company faced criticism from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for not letting customers with unpaid bills take advantage of the free service during the pandemic. Charter partially relented, saying it would make the free offer “available to New York customers with outstanding balances.” But the unpaid-bills restriction is apparently still in place in the other 40 states where Charter offers service.
In a blog post, the NDIA listed several other shortcomings in Charter’s approach. One problem is that customers who get the two-free-months offer are not enrolled into a low-income plan after the two months are up, even if they are eligible. Charter sells a “Spectrum Internet Assist” program to low-income people for $18 a month but apparently it isn’t making this option easily available to people taking advantage of the free-two-months offer.
“We are hearing repeatedly that people who try to sign up for the free two months are being told they will be charged $50 for service after the free two months, as if it were a promotional offer, not a crisis offer,” Siefer said. Charter “could have set it up so that those households were transitioned to Spectrum Internet Assist.” Because of this, it may be better in the long run for people to sign up for Internet Assist from the start instead of taking Charter’s free-two-months offer.
The NDIA also urged Charter to expand eligibility of Internet Assist “to more low-income households, similar to Comcast Internet Essentials” and to “Increase capacity to take phone calls requesting the free service or institute a call-back system.” Shortly after the offer was first made last month, the NDIA said it was hearing stories of four-hour-long waits on hold.
When contacted by Ars, a Charter spokesperson noted that “Eligibility for Charter’s 60-day free offer is not limited to households eligible for Spectrum Internet Assist or even low-income households generally—it is families with children in school [K-12 or college] and professional educators, throughout our 41-state service area.” After the free two months are up, “new Internet customers with our regular Internet service would receive a discounted promotional price for the next 10 months,” Charter said.
Disclosure: The Advance/Newhouse Partnership, which owns 13 percent of Charter, is part of Advance Publications. Advance Publications owns Condé Nast, which owns Ars Technica.