Keeping Us Connected During the Pandemic: How Broadband and Cable Companies Have Given Back to Communities in Need

The Coronavirus pandemic has been a generation-defining event. Even as things get back to “normal,” it is still affecting us, and it will be decades before we really understand the full impact of it.

However, one thing we do know about the pandemic’s impact on society is that is has exposed some of the stark inequalities in American society. It is no secret that poorer communities have been hit harder by the pandemic, largely because they have access to fewer medical services, and also because economic necessity has put them on the front lines, putting them at greater risk for infection.

But communities in need have suffered disproportionately in other ways, mainly in access to services, and broadband internet is a perfect example.

During the pandemic, we have turned to the internet for so many things – work, school, healthcare, socialization, etc. Yet poorer communities often have less access to these services, or they are more likely to lose them due to lack of payment, something very possible during a time when unemployment has reached record highs.

Fortunately, this wasn’t the case. Cable companies, both on their own and as the result of guidance from the FCC, pitched in to help these communities during a period of tremendous upheaval. Read on to find out all the ways in which cable companies have given back during the pandemic.

The Sudden Demand for Broadband Internet

While we’ve been growing increasingly dependent on the internet for decades, it wasn’t until the pandemic hit in March 2020 that many of us saw just how much we rely on this technology, especially as use went up.

The closure of businesses and schools sent people home to work remotely and go to virtual school. This immediately caused the demand for broadband internet to go up.

In addition, many other aspects of our lives moved online. We started using Zoom for happy hours, calling our doctors on video, and attending other events via the computer.

Plus, since most of us were stuck at home to go a bit crazy, we also turned to the internet for entertainment in unprecedented numbers. For example, during the initial months of the pandemic, Netflix added a record number of new subscribers.

What does this all mean? Well, in short, it shows that during the beginning days of the internet, it was put to the test. Initially, this led to a pretty sizable reduction in average broadband speed. Eventually, speeds rebounded. But during the first month, things were moving pretty slowly. Here’s a graph that details how all this went down:

Such a sudden increase in internet usage reminds us of just how much of a lifeline the internet has been during the pandemic. But given that not everyone has or can afford a broadband connection, it also shows us why it was so important for cable companies to step up and help.

The Digital Divide in America

One reason why it has been so important to make sure people stay connected to the internet is because there is a rather large “digital divide” in America. This refers to the inequalities that exist in terms of access to the web.

In today’s digital world, a big digital divide is not a good thing. When underserved communities don’t have access to the technologies that people are using, then they just fall further behind, perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty and making it harder to reduce inequality.

During the pandemic, there has been as lot of potential for this phenomenon to get even worse. As mentioned, poorer communities, which already lack access to many services, were also the worst hit by the pandemic. And the stakes were also higher. If a kid lives in a home where there is no high-speed internet, this meant they had to pretty much stop going to school during the pandemic. Before the pandemic, they were likely still falling behind, but at least they could still go to school to remain connected. Without this option, though, the consequences could be dire.

In the United States, there are really two different versions of the digital divide: urban/rural and rich/poor. They are connected but not entirely.

In rural areas, economic conditions do sometimes dictate who gets access to high-quality internet. But it’s often simply an infrastructure problem. In places where few people live, it doesn’t make sense for the cable companies to offer service since there aren’t enough people to pay for the service and help them recoup the cost. To give you an idea, 98.3 percent of urban residents have access to a wired broadband connection as compared to just 73.6 percent of rural residents.

However, just because you live in a city doesn’t mean you have access to internet. In fact, money is usually the number one reason why people don’t have a broadband connection.

So, what this means is that during this pandemic, someone had to step up. If things were just left alone, then who knows how these groups would have fared. Yet this didn’t happen. The cable industry, along with the federal government, stepped up to help out.

How Cable Companies Helped During the Pandemic

Below you can find out all the different ways that cable companies have helped communities in need. However, before we begin, we should say two things:

First, cable companies have been working to help bridge the digital divide, largely by providing free or reduced-price plans to low income households, for years. It’s just that during the pandemic many went even further.

Second, it’s beyond possible the cable companies could have done more. They are, after all, for-profit companies, and so their motives should be kept in question. But no one required them to do anything, and what they did do helped millions of people stay connected during one of the biggest upheavals our society has ever faced.

Here’s more on some of the things that cable companies have done to help communities in need:

The Keep American’s Connected Pledge

One of the first ways in which cable companies gave back during the pandemic came at the request of FCC Chairman (at the time) Ajit Pai. In the early days of the crisis, recognizing the need for broadband internet to keep the world running and avoid people falling behind, introduced the “Keep American’s Connected Pledge.”

This “Keep Americans Connected” pledge asked broadband companies in the US to:

Although signing this pledge was voluntarily, by doing so, each company committed to meet these criteria. However, Chairman Pai went a little bit further and encouraged broadband providers to also:

  • Reduce data cap policies since most people were likely to dramatically increase usage of their connections
  • Waive long-distance and overage fees (for phone calls)
  • Assist schools to set up remote learning opportunities
  • Make special arrangements to ensure hospitals and healthcare providers have solid connections at all times.

In total, more than 800 companies signed the pledge. Didn’t know there were that many broadband internet providers in the US? You’re not alone. Most of these smaller companies service rural areas where the big companies don’t have infrastructure.

On average, it cost these smaller companies around $32,700 to honor the points in the pledge. It cost bigger companies something similar, but they are obviously more able to handle the burden.

Attempted Legislation

While the “Keep Americans Connected” pledge was a noble cause, and a good example of how government and industry can work together, it had an end date. Initially, it was meant to expire on May 15, 2020, back in a time when we all thought the pandemic would last just a month or two.

However, when it became apparent that the crisis was going to last much, much longer, the companies who initially signed the pledge agreed to extend their commitment through June 30, 2020. But when this date came, the pledge expired. Many companies continued to provide the same benefits, but they were no longer bound to do so by the pledge.

Before the pledge expired (and well after it) several lawmakers attempted to pass legislation that would make some of these stipulations more permanent, at least for a longer time during the pandemic.

For example, the Keeping Critical Connections Act of 2020 and the Accelerating Broadband Connectivity Act of 2020 are two bills introduced in the Senate designed to help close the digital divide and also make sure Americans stayed connected during the pandemic. Neither passed.

Nevertheless, many broadband internet companies continues to give back throughout the pandemic.

Contributions from the Big Four Cable Companies

While many of you just learned that there are in fact hundreds of broadband internet service providers in the United States, the reality is that few of us have more than a few choices when it comes time to sign up for service. And for most of us those choices are limited to just five companies: Comcast, Charter (Spectrum), Cox, AT&T, and Verizon.

In total, these companies provide internet to more than 90 percent of Americans, with Comcast and Charter (Spectrum) combining for a 67 percent market share.

Therefore, while the outpouring of support for the Keep Americans Connected Pledge has been encouraging to see, it’s ultimately the actions of these four (two) companies that stand to have the biggest impact.

Here’s what they’ve done throughout the pandemic to help out communities in need and keep Americans connected to the internet.

Comcast

Despite being the largest broadband internet service provider in the country, Comcast may have done the “least” for communities in need, at least in terms of the number of policies it enacted to help people in need.

Still, the company’s efforts made a significant impact in the lives of millions of people. During the pandemic, Comcast:

Together, these four policies helped millions of people get or keep broadband internet access during the pandemic, hopefully reducing one element of the stress that this crisis has produced.

Charter (Spectrum)

The country’s next largest internet service provider, Charter, which sells under the name Spectrum, took a different route. While Comcast put emphasis on students and healthcare providers.

To do this, they offered free service to households with college or K-12 students for 60 days through June 30, providing connections with speeds up to 100 Mbps. In addition, for households meeting these requirements signing up for service for the first time, Charter waive installation fees.

Charter also helped out hospitals and other healthcare facilities by upgrading their connections for free, and they also launched a program that provided new small businesses with a free month of service.

All of this built on Charter’s existing efforts to help people get connected, which includes Spectrum Internet Assist, a program that provides low-income homes with a broadband internet connection of up to 30 Mbps. In addition, Charter also participates in the FCC Emergency Broadband Program, which provides between $50-$75 per month for qualifying customers to help them pay for their internet connection.

Cox

The third largest broadband internet provider in the US also did its part to help people stay connected, despite serving a significant smaller segment of the population.

Among Cox’s many efforts, here are some of the most impactful.

Considering it includes support for devices, as well as for educators and low-income households, Cox’s contributions during the pandemic can be seen as more “comprehensive” than some of the larger companies. But since it serves just a fraction of the customers, the impact may not have been as significant. Still, these policies show Cox’s commitment to keeping people online during this crisis.

AT&T

Although somewhat of a small player in the world of broadband internet, AT&T, one of the countries largest wireless phone companies, took significant action to help communities in need during the pandemic. Their efforts included:

  • Removing all data caps for all customers.
  • Offered free data plans to certain school-issues tablets, for up to 60 days.
  • Expanded eligibility for low-income internet plans while also offering two months of free service to new subscribers.
  • Created a $10 million fund to support distance learning, donated $500,000 to organizations helping young people learn online, and provided free, basic smartphones to first responder public safety agencies.
  • Committed $5.5 million to pay for meals for first responders and medical personnel
  • Introduced a new low-cost prepaid internet plan and increased data allotments on these plans.
  • As you can see, AT&T went beyond its competitors by not only offering its products or services at reduced prices or for free but by also donating money to causes dedicated to fighting the pandemic and reducing its impact.

Verizon

AT&T’s biggest competitor in the world of wireless phone service, Verizon, also didn’t shy away from helping out during the pandemic. Some of their contributions to communities in need included:

  • Automatically adding 15 GB of high speed data to all wireless customers and small business plans
  • Removing data caps on all DSL and FIOS connections
  • Created a new low-income broadband plan that would be available throughout 2020
  • Upped data allotments for wireless plans and also allowed that data to be used for mobile hotspots, ensuring that customers could access the internet for work or school no matter where they were (or how good their home connection was)
  • Waived a whole host of fees, including activation and upgrade fees, as well as data overage charges.
  • Provided discounted service to nurses and teachers
  • Allowed free internet calling to countries severely impacted by the pandemic to allow friends and family living in other countries to be able to communicate with one another.
  • Tripled data limits for students in Title 1 schools
  • Donated $50 million to non-profit groups supporting students and healthcare providers.
  • Connected the US Naval Hospital Ship, Comfort, with free internet, and gave meals to hospital workers in New York City, at a time when that city was the epicenter of the pandemic.
  • Offered $5 million to help small businesses
  • Gave free online learning tools to home broadband users for 60 days

As you can see, Verizon spent a great deal of money, both directly and indirectly through discounts, helping out communities in need while also helping to make sure people stayed connected. As a wireless internet provider, they, along with AT&T, were in a unique position to help, and they seem to have risen to the occasion.

A skeptic might question these motives; both Verizon and AT&T have relatively small market shares when it comes to broadband internet. So, perhaps all this altruism was really designed to help improve these companies’ standings in the eyes of consumers, so that they could lure them to become customers. But even if this is the case, the efforts of these companies helped millions of people during the pandemic.

Other Ways Cable Companies Have Helped Out

In addition to all of the above, cable companies have helped out during the pandemic in a number of different ways.

For example, all cable companies, as participants in the Ad Council, provided funding and air time for public service announcements (PSAs) designed to spread information about how to combat the virus. In the beginning, this included messages about wearing masks and staying home. Now, this communication is much more centered around vaccines, encouraging people to get the shot, especially as the science continues to prove that they are the most effective way to fight COVID-19.

Another thing cable companies did during the pandemic was work to make sure connection speeds remained high. As mentioned, during the initial days of the crisis, intervene speeds took a tumble due to all the increased demand. But they quickly bounced back. And, on average, speeds have actually increased over the past year, ensuring that everyone who has needed the internet to keep their lives going could have it and do so.

Broadband as a Utility?

One question that continues to pop up in conversations about broadband internet is: should it be treated as a public utility, like water, electricity, or gas?

Currently, broadband internet is not seen this way, at least in the eyes of the law, and this allows it to dodge some government regulation and also have more control over prices. However, many argue that in today’s day and age, a broadband internet connection is essential for life. Without one (especially when money or geography leave you without a choice), there are less opportunities available to you, which contributes to inequality in all its forms.

During the pandemic, efforts were once again made to reclassify internet as a utility, but they stalled in the legislature, as they often do. What the future holds for these services remains to be seen, but this pandemic certainly reminded us of just how important high-speed internet is to our lives.

Fortunately, despite not having to, cable companies and other internet service providers stepped up and provided services and money to those in need, easing the burden of this pandemic, even if just slightly, and making it easier for people to live their lives and move forward during what has been an era-defining crisis. 


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