As the coronavirus forces people indoors, internet usage is sure to increase for entertainment, work, and accessing information and services. For low-income households that already struggle to obtain adequate broadband access, being even more reliant on the internet may exacerbate the pre-existing challenges of living in a virtually connected society. “This situation is highlighting the digital divide and all the inadequacies of the current structures in place to provide universal broadband service,” says Olivia Wein, staff attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. In other words: If they can’t afford to connect, some Americans will be at an even greater disadvantage as we all get used to social distancing.
Some, but notably not all, internet providers have been enacting measures to ease the strain. AT&T announced on Thursday that it is suspending data caps on its broadband service in response to the pandemic, which range from 150 GB to 1 terabyte per month and can cost up to $10 in penalties for every addition 20 gigabytes used. CenturyLink and Comcast also said they’d be removing the caps. Comcast will additionally be upping broadband speeds for its Internet Essentials program—a $9.95 per month plan that caters to low-income consumers, compared to its standard plans that start at $20—from 15/2 Mbps to 25/3 Mbps. The company is also offering the service for free to new qualifying customers for 60 days. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called on the agency on Thursday to convince other providers to take similar steps, while a coalition of 17 senators sent a letter to major ISPs asking that they also temporarily suspend the caps.
The removal of data caps and scaling up of low-cost internet options are good first steps to assist underprivileged users in these unusual circumstances, says to Cheryl Leanza, policy advisor for the media advocacy arm of the United Church of Christ, which works to expand technology access to underserved populations. “You might be low-income person and not have access to a health portal because you don’t have internet at your home or you’ve been using your phone to help your first-grade kid do homework and hit your data cap,” she notes. “You might be trying to figure out whether to take your 80-year-old mother to the doctor and it might be a lot better to use the telehealth video connection, but you don’t have any other way to access the internet but the library, which is another public place that people are trying to avoid at this time.”
Indeed, while it’ll be difficult for everyone to access all the resources they need in this time of shutdowns and isolation, it’ll likely impact low-income populations the hardest. Advocates worry that the homework gap, which refers to the difficulty students have completing course work without a stable home internet connection, will widen as schools close their classrooms and provide lessons and materials virtually. Receiving public benefits also requires people to stay in contact with the government to verify eligibility, which is often facilitated online. “If you want people in areas where community spread has been a problem to stay home, these households have no means to get the day-to-day done without adequate broadband,” said Wein.
Though some internet providers are moving to free up access, obstacles remain for lower-income Americans, and advocates are calling on providers and the government to take extra steps during the outbreak. For instance, many providers require customers to verify that they have not been a regular subscriber for at least 90 days before enrolling in a plan for low-income households. But Leanza notes that many people will be abruptly losing their jobs due to the economy slowing down and businesses closing, so they may need a cheaper internet plan more immediately. “We definitely hear from people on the ground that the three-month waiting period is extremely difficult,” she said, adding that removing this restriction would be a big help to newly-unemployed people. Leanza further pointed that the government could enact an emergency expansion of the federal Lifeline program, which provides discounted telecommunications services to low-income American, which it did in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
These moves by ISPs to suspend data caps show us that the restriction is largely unnecessary in the first place. Data caps are essentially arbitrary mechanisms that exist mostly so that internet service providers can make more money. Hopefully the companies decide to do away with the caps entirely, even after this pandemic has subsided.