Verizon is among many home-Internet providers that offer temporarily free service for low-income households during the pandemic. However, many cannot take advantage of Verizon’s offer because of a significant restriction.
Advocates for poor people at the non-profit National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) have pointed out the Verizon issue as one of many. Charter, CenturyLink and Frontier were also called disappointments, even though Comcast was praised. The NDIA maintains a list of telecom offers that are related to pandemics. EveryoneOn, a similar group, provides a search tool that allows you to find low-income offers according to your ZIP code.
Verizon announced on March 23 that it would offer two months of home-Internet service and phone service free to existing low-income Lifeline subscribers and $20 monthly discounts to new low-income subscribers. $200 off brings 200Mbps Internet’s starting price down to $19.99 per month. The broadband deals are only available on Verizon’s FiOS fibre-to-the-home service. They do not apply to DSL areas where Verizon has never upgraded copper homes to fibre.
Verizon responded to Ars’s inquiry by saying, “our DSL service doesn’t meet the Lifeline programme qualification standard”. This refers to the speed standards of 10Mbps to 20Mbps imposed by FCC’s Lifeline program. It reimburses ISPs for providing discounts to low-income customers.
However, while existing Lifeline customers are eligible for 60-days of service, new FiOS subscribers will be eligible for $20 off. This applies even if they don’t use Lifeline plans.
Angela Siefer, NDIA Executive Director, said that Verizon offers a discount. The discount offer requires Lifeline eligibility verification. However, Verizon has confirmed with Ars that the value is not Lifeline. So why limit where the value is? Lifeline’s qualifications standards allow service to be provided at a lower speed if it is impossible. Their most vulnerable customers will be left without access to this valuable resource because they do not include DSL. This applies to low-income residents in underserved areas like Baltimore and Buffalo.
Verizon probably would want to avoid adding customers to its DSL network. The telco won’t invest in fibre upgrades in areas where it doesn’t see the potential profit, which leaves DSL users uncertain.
Verizon has limited its offer of two free months to existing Lifeline subscribers. This prevents poor people from signing up for service during the pandemic. This contrasts with other ISPs offering free service to low-income subscribers who sign up right now. It’s because of the impact of the pandemic on people with limited means who don’t have broadband at home. Customers with a Verizon Lifeline plan before March 20 are eligible for the two-month free offer.
This isn’t just about a handful of large ISPs offering better deals. For example, BEK Communications, a North Dakota-based cooperative, is offering free four months of fibre service to new subscribers.
According to a Pew Research Center study, about 73 per cent of Americans have broadband service at home. Pew Research Center reports that broadband service is less likely for older adults, people of colour, rural residents, and individuals with lower education and incomes.
Access to low-income housing varies by region.
Verizon was one of the hundreds of ISPs who signed the Federal Communications Commission’s “Keeping Americans Connected” pledge. This means they agreed to waive late fees and not terminate service if customers fail to pay due to the coronavirus outbreak. They also promised to provide Wi-Fi hotspots for the public. The pledge is voluntary, and the FCC’s non-binding approach to telecom regulation means that the broadband industry will decide whether to grant low-income individuals access during the pandemic.
Other than that pledge and the pre-existing programs such as Lifeline for low-income subscribers, major ISPs have not made any pandemic-specific offerings to poor people. CenturyLink, Frontier and Cincinnati Bell are the only ISPs that offer low-cost or free service to needy customers in case of a pandemic.
The offers to help the poor during the pandemic vary by region and depend on which ISP dominates locally.
“We have looked at it all. Siefer stated that there is no alternative to the federal broadband subsidy in times of crisis. “Aside from all the benefits that Internet provides to a household during this crisis, people will not be able to stay home if they don’t have Internet. The digital divide is now a safety concern.
Free Press, an advocacy group, urged ISPs to waive billing for low-income households and seniors and households with students from public schools who were sent home because of school closings.
Frontier responded to Ars by pointing to its existing low-income programs like Lifeline. Frontier said it was working with small businesses affected or forced to close, school districts, and rural healthcare facilities that might require additional bandwidth. It will continue to evaluate options to help customers during this difficult time.
CenturyLink also referred to pre-existing programs for low-income customers and stated that it is “spending data usage limits on residential customers because of COVID-19.” This is a minor change. CenturyLink technically set a monthly limit of 1TB, but it did not charge overage fees.
Cincinnati Bell explained to Ars why it doesn’t offer pandemic-related offers for low-income customers. It said that it wouldn’t try to build market share by promoting products targeting our competitors, which would require foot traffic from field technicians. However, the company told us that it had reconnected 400 accounts of customers suspended due to late payments.
Siefer stated that Cincinnati Bell’s decision to “avoid new customers is foolish… Community members in Cincinnati Bell territory must travel to ATMs, payment centres, stores, mailboxes and stores to pay their bills or bank at home. People who are unable to use telehealth tools but need medical attention are more likely than others to visit hospitals and clinics in distress or go without it. This could prove fatal.
Windstream offers two months free to Lifeline customers.
Comcast does a “tremendous job.”
AT&T, which has the same mix of fibre- and DSL offerings that Verizon, CenturyLink and Frontier, have done more to help the poor during the public-health crisis that caused millions of job losses and an increase in home-working.
Customers who order their low-income plan before April 30 will receive two months of free home-Internet service from AT&T. Prices for download speeds below 3Mbps are $5 per month, and rates above 10Mbps are $10 per month. After the two-month free trial, prices go up to $10 per month. AT&T stated it would expand its eligibility to include more low-income households and waive data-overage fees.
Siefer said, “Aside from the AT&T plan’s slow speeds and inability to allow those with bad credit to be eligible,” she told us. “If a household has incurred debts with AT&T in the past six months for fixed Internet service, they will not be eligible.”
Siefer stated that Comcast is doing the best job of all companies. Comcast offered it’s $10 per-month Internet Essentials plan to low-income customers. It increased speeds from 15Mbps download/2Mbps uploaded to 25Mbps/3Mbps. Comcast will temporarily accept low-income customers into Internet Essentials, even if they owe any outstanding debt to Comcast. Comcast temporarily lifted data caps.
Charter territory: Problems
Charter, the second-largest Internet provider in America after Comcast, will give new customers who have children in school 60-day free Internet access. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio criticized Charter for refusing to allow customers who have not paid their bills to take advantage of the free service. Charter partially complied and said the offer would be made available to New York customers with outstanding balances. Charter also offers service in 40 other states. However, the restriction on unpaid bills is still in effect.
The NDIA posted a blog post highlighting other flaws in Charter’s approach. The problem is that customers who receive the two-months-free offer are not automatically enrolled in a low-income plan once the two months have expired, even if eligible. Charter offers a “Spectrum Internet Assist” program for $18 per month to low-income customers, but it doesn’t make this option readily available to those who take advantage of the two-months-free offer.
Siefer stated, “We keep hearing that people who sign up for the two-month free service are being charged $50 after the two-month free.” Charter could have made it so that these households could be switched to Spectrum Internet Assist. This is why it might be better for the long-term for people to sign up immediately for Internet Assist instead of waiting for Charter’s two-month free offer.
NDIA also asked Charter to extend the eligibility of Internet Assist to more low-income households, similar to Comcast Internet Essentials and to “Increase the capacity to take calls requesting the free service” or to establish a callback program. The NDIA stated that it had received calls from people complaining of long wait times and four-hour waits for their callbacks shortly after the initial offer was made.
Ars reached out to Charter for clarification. A Charter spokesperson stated that Charter’s 60-day offer was not restricted to households eligible for Spectrum Internet Assist or low-income households. It is open to all families with children in school (K-12, college) and professional educators within our 41-state service region. Charter stated that after the two-month free trial period, new Internet customers who sign up for our regular Internet service would be eligible to receive a 10% discount for the next ten months.