KNEUER: Stay Connected Vouchers Are A Consumer-Friendly Way To Avoid Bill Shock

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John Kneuer Former Administrator, National Telecommunications and Information Administration
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After mortgage payments and essential services like electric, heat and water, do you know what worries Americans more than anything? Paying for their wireless service. That’s according to a recent Morning Consult poll highlighting the real-world concerns of Americans in our first global pandemic of the internet age.

For most of us, our mobile device, cable tv and broadband service aren’t just for streaming the latest episode of Tiger King, although it’s good for that too. It’s our connection – to work, to family, to news, to doctors and information that can keep us safe and sane. Broadband services are also key to our ability to get back to work and get America moving again.

Because of the essential nature of connectivity in today’s world, over 650 communication service providers signed the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” and promised not to terminate service for residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic and to waive any late fees that these customers incur. The initial plan was for 60 days, and many providers extended through the end of June. That’s great news to Americans struggling to get through the worst of this crisis. But it’s not the end of the story.

Millions of Americans who have taken advantage of the offer to put off bill payments are going to struggle to be able to pay back what they owe when those bills eventually come due. And many, through no fault of their own, are struggling to find the resources to pay for critical internet connections. Consumers, Congress and service providers should be worried.  Very worried.

In 2019, Consumer Reports noted the average cable and internet bill stood at $217.42. In 2018, the Bureau of Labor and Statistics tabulated the average wireless bill at $114. Add that up and multiply it by four and, for the millions that have lost their job or otherwise are suffering as a result of this pandemic, these unpaid balances represent a real threat to American’s ability to stay connected — and to the companies that signed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s pledge.

The current crisis calls for creative solutions. One such solution is providing eligible households with two $50 vouchers during each month of the COVID-19 crisis to help them stay connected by defraying the costs of their communications services. The vouchers could be applied together, or each could be used for a separate service — either on bills or at the point of sale.

This program isn’t without precedent. Congress did something similar when it established a successful program to provide customers with vouchers to purchase converter boxes for analog televisions during the digital television transition.

When I was in government, Congress mandated the DTV transition. Because the DTV transition was a mandate by Congress, it was only fair that Congress compensate consumers for the costs of converting their existing televisions. Congress recognized then that a voucher program was an efficient way to deliver this support to the consumers who needed it. The idea here is the same, just the stakes are that much greater. Much of our current economic disruption can be tied to the necessary – albeit mandated – business shutdown. So, just as in the DTV transition, it is only fair for the government to ease the burden caused by these shutdowns.

To ensure these funds are directed to those most impacted by the shutdown, only households with an individual that received the full CARES Act rebate check would be eligible for this program. The FCC and the Treasury Department could also utilize the same delivery processes used to distribute the recent CARES Act rebate checks.

The program isn’t going to remove the obligation people have to pay their bills, nor should it. But it is a way for Congress to help consumers and the businesses that did the right thing by keeping their customers connected – and to do it in a way that relies on already established criteria as well as previously successful programs.

As we have socially distanced, we have all become increasingly dependent on communications services for telework, telehealth, distance learning and critical connections with friends and loved ones.

Now as we begin the road to recovery, these same communication services will be essential to get our economy moving again. Congress should do everything it can to help make sure that Americans hit hardest by this pandemic can stay connected, and that the businesses that provide essential communications can continue to keep their networks and employees working for all of us.

John Kneuer was the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and the Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.