By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. telecoms regulator said Friday that major internet providers – including Comcast Corp, AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications Inc – agreed not to terminate service for subscribers for the next 60 days if they are unable to pay their bills due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said after calls with more than 50 companies that they also agreed to waive any late fees residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic.
They also agreed to open Wi-Fi hotspots to anyone who needs them.
Millions of Americans are expected to work and study from home as employers and states urge people to stay away from workplaces and schools to reduce the potential to spread the coronavirus.
Others agreeing to take part include Alphabet Inc’s Google Fiber, Charter Communications Inc, CenturyLink Inc, Cox Communications [COXC.UL], Sprint Corp, T-Mobile US Inc.
“As the coronavirus outbreak spreads and causes a series of disruptions to the economic, educational, medical and civic life of our country, it is imperative that Americans stay connected,” Pai said in a statement. “Broadband will enable them to communicate with their loved ones and doctors, telework, ensure their children can engage in remote learning.”
Many companies also agreed to waive data limits for the next 60 days.
Charter Communications said it would offer free broadband and Wi-Fi access for 60 days and waive installation fees to households with students without its service.
For customers with international long distance plans, Sprint will provide free international calling rates from the United States to countries with large coronavirus outbreaks.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, praised the companies adopting the pledge, but said the FCC should do more.
She called on the commission to “provide hotspots for loan for students whose school doors have closed” and “work with healthcare providers to ensure connectivity for telehealth services are available for hospitals, doctors, and nurses treating coronavirus patients and those who are quarantined.”
Pai also said he had asked providers that offer low-income consumers lower-speed cheaper service to increase speeds and expand eligibility. Comcast said Thursday it was raising its speeds for all its low-income users, while AT&T said it was waiving data caps for home consumers that have plans with usage caps.
Internet firms expressed confidence that U.S. networks can withstand the predicted jump in traffic.
The trade group U.S. Telecom said in a letter to Congress on Friday that in areas where workers are being told to stay home the group has “not observed time shifted traffic exceeding peak network capacity.”
Verizon said it had “not seen any measurable increase in data usage on any of its networks.” More than 60% of U.S. network traffic is video and content streaming.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Dan Grebler and Rosalba O’Brien)