Internet providers in Minnesota are honoring a call made by the Federal Communications Commission to take action to assure that residents and businesses can stay online during the COVID-19 crisis.
What is called the Keep Americans Connected Pledge promises to not terminate internet service to residential or small business customers because of failure to pay for reasons connected to the crisis. It also calls on providers to waive late fees and open any wifi hotspots to all users.
The pledge came out of March 12 conferences call between FCC chairman Ajit Pai and internet providers, and most U.S. telephone and internet companies signed on. Pai also called on companies to relax data caps, increase speeds without additional charges and to work to provide adequate service to health care providers and to schools implementing e-learning due to school closures.
Jill Hornbacher, the director of external communications for Comcast in the Twin Cities, said the company is pausing its data caps and offering its Xfinity wifi hotspots free for everyone. And since it is also a cable provider, it has added news content as well as providing grade-level education programs for parents with students at home.
The company is also increasing access to its lowest cost internet service, Internet Essentials, which has been available to low-income users for $9.95 a month. New customers will receive 60 days of service without charge; the company is also increasing speeds for all customers on the plan.
Xfinity’s Internet Essentials plan also comes with a modem, access to hotspots and a basic laptop computer for $150. At the end of 2019, 172,000 Minnesotans were on that plan, Hornbacher said. While the company has signed the FCC pledge, it has done similar plan offerings during natural disasters around the country.
“The goal is to keep everybody online because we know how important it is right now with people working from home, distance learning and obviously staying connected to what’s going on in the world,” Hornbacher said.
Chase Rydberg, the general manager for Arvig’s Multiwav internet service in the Twin Cities region, says the company’s broadband service is prepaid and is currently stopped if payments are late. Starting this week, however, service will not be cut off for 60 days if requested by customers facing financial issues due to layoffs, sickness or quarantine related to the pandemic. Also covered by the new program are families who are having trouble making payments because they are required to stay home with school-aged children. Rydberg said they have already been receiving such requests.
“There are restaurants that have already laid off workers,” he said. “We have already seen it and a lot is due to the changes in the hospitality industry and that is definitely an eligible circumstance.”
Arvig doesn’t have data caps and doesn’t charge late fees so neither of those FCC requests affect the company. Arvig currently provides broadband service to more than 51,000 customers in 52 different counties and nearly 200 different communities across the state of Minnesota. Approximately 6,500 of those customers are businesses, and it also serves more than 700 medical facilities and 300 school systems.
“We ultimately want to make sure people stay connected that need to and not have to feel additional burden based on being laid off or becoming ill or whatever it may be related to the virus.”
Anna Boroff, executive director of the Minnesota Cable Communications Association, said all members of the trade group are following the FCC pledge and many are offering help to low-income users and to families trying to access e-learning during school closures.
“MCCA members have been going the extra mile, opening their wifi hotspots to everyone, and making sure no one loses service because of the coronavirus,” Boroff said. “Many are offering discounted or free services to those in need with an extra focus on students.”
The FCC’s Pai asked internet service providers to expand their low-income programs by increasing speeds to 25 Mbps uploads and 3 Mbps downloads. Those without low-income programs should adopt them, he said. He also wants companies to waive data caps, waive long-distance and overage charges for phone services and to help with e-learning access. Thursday, Minnesota’s two U.S. Senators urged Pai to take action to make sure areas without high-speed connections get them.
“With nearly one million students potentially being moved to online instruction, we are concerned about the 17 percent of students in Minnesota who do not have access to high-speed internet at home,” wrote Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith. “While it is critical for schools to close to protect the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff, we urge the FCC to ensure that all students in our state who currently do not have access to the internet at home are connected.”
The FCC also is asking providers to monitor changes in usage patterns during the pandemic to make sure they don’t harm network performance. Both Hornbacher and Rydberg said the network is capable of handling whatever usage is created by increased e-learning and working from home caused by the response to COVID-19.
“We’ve been monitoring it closely, but it’s been performing well,” Hornbacker said of Comcast’s internet services. There is more usage during the weekday than normal, but it isn’t different than other high-demand periods like the Olympics or Super Bowl or a new Fortnite game update.
“We see those spikes regularly so we’re able to manage those appropriately,” she said. Speeds, however, can be influenced by user equipment: modems, routers and computers.
Rydberg said Arvig’s usage this week hasn’t been higher than what it sees during its normal peak hours — evenings from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. “We really don’t foresee utilization going beyond that,” he said. “We have added additional capacity, just to make sure. But I don’t anticipate utilization exceeding peak hours.” He did expect daytime usage to go up, though not beyond what the company can handle.
“For many providers, the actual bandwidth use is just moving around from being condensed in one location in an office, and now it’s spread out to multiple locations and multiple providers. If we have to make changes, we’re well prepared to make changes as needed.”