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Americans are losing service despite FCC pledge not to disconnect

"Promises made not to cut off essential communications service during this time need to be kept," said one FCC commissioner.
Image: Verizon Wireless store in San Francisco
Phone and internet services are vital during the pandemic, so people can connect with family, receive telemedicine and health updates about the progress of the coronavirus, and perform their jobs and homeschool children.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

Some people who just lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic are finding that they have lost something else — phone and internet access.

Across the country, suddenly unemployed residents are getting threatening notices, despite an initiative from the Federal Communications Commission that pledged last month to "Keep Americans Connected."

"It was a surprise when my line was suddenly disconnected, because I had actually got an email saying that during this time there would be no interruptions to phone service," Aaron Joshua Perra, a hairstylist from Minneapolis, told NBC News. He had his Sprint phone shut off soon after his salon closed down last month. Sprint has since reconnected him.

Around 650 companies signed the FCC promise not to "terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic" and to "waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic."

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Yet at a time when phone and internet services are vital for Americans to connect with family, receive telemedicine and health updates about the progress of the coronavirus, and perform their jobs and homeschool children, some telecommunications services are still disconnecting users.

Anthony Skojec, who lives in upstate New York, was recently furloughed from his job as a furniture salesman. When he couldn't get through to Verizon on the phone, he visited a store, where the manager assured him he wouldn't be disconnected.

However, one week later, Skojec found that his phone service had been shut off, and he was told that he would have to pay $360 immediately to have it reinstated.

"I paid it from my unemployment, but it means I can't pay anything on the mortgage," Skojec said. His children, who now depend on their phones and broadband connection for remote learning, were also shut off, because they were on his plan.

A Verizon spokesperson said customers need to ask the company for help.

"Keep in mind customers need to proactively reach out to us to seek relief, and if any customer feels the system isn't working, we encourage them to call us to try and work it out," the spokesperson said.

Bryce Cameron, an Uber driver in Orlando, Florida, had to stop work to care for his grandmother, who is having cancer treatments. He said his Sprint service was shut off twice despite numerous assurances that he should disregard disconnection notices. Sprint has since reconnected him again, he said.

T-Mobile, which now owns Sprint, said in a statement that customers must let them know beforehand if they're going to have problems paying bills.

"We have put in place a number of measures to help the existing Sprint and T-Mobile customers impacted by these difficult times. If any of our customers experience financial hardship as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic and are concerned about paying their bill, we want to work with them and we encourage them to contact our Care teams before the account is past due to explore options and ensure their service is not interrupted," the company said.

Cameron said he didn't believe Sprint was trying to help.

"I think it's just a public image thing," Cameron said of the FCC pledge. "They're realizing the longer this goes on they may not be able to fulfill that pledge, because there's no real date in sight for when everyone can get back to normal."

An FCC spokesperson said the agency has received consumer complaints about service disruptions.

"Although we have received some disconnection complaints recently, we think it may reflect increased attention on the FCC's work to keep people connected," the spokesman said. The agency doesn't keep records of complaints about disconnection.

Jessica Rosenworcel, a commissioner at the FCC, said the shut-offs are "unacceptable."

"Promises made not to cut off essential communications service during this time need to be kept," Rosenworcel told NBC News. "The FCC needs to investigate every complaint for consumers who unfairly lose their service and help fix it fast."

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New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has taken matters into his own hands, banning phone and internet companies from disconnecting people during the pandemic. "This is not the time for anyone to have their connections to the world severed," he said at a briefing this week.

As they seek to keep the pledge, some smaller telecom companies have found that they are struggling to serve the huge number of businesses that have seen their revenue plummet but still need internet service to shift their businesses online, said Shirley Bloomfield, head of the rural broadband association NTCA.

Smaller companies that provide service to just 5,000 subscribers are adversely affected when 500 or so people are out of work in the community, Bloomfield said, noting that some companies are paying to create Wi-Fi hot spots in parking lots so kids can continue learning.

"These [customers] are their neighbors," Bloomfield said. "They go to church with them and see them in the grocery store. They are sending technicians into people's homes still."

However, at some point, service needs to be paid for.

Communications infrastructure players are preparing to present their case on Capitol Hill as part of the fourth round of stimulus negotiations. The players want a "Keeping Critical Connectivity" act, according to Chip Pickering, the chief executive of Incompas, a trade association that fights for competition in the communications industry.

Already, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has introduced a bill requesting $2 billion in aid for rural broadband companies that serve 250,000 subscribers or fewer.

Cameron, meanwhile, is still dealing with conflicting messages from Sprint over what he owes.

"I do get nervous that if my unemployment doesn't go through, I'll lose access to TV and then even my phone and not know anything that's going on with this virus."