Senators Propose Ban on Internet Shutoffs Until Pandemic is Over

A newly proposed US law would institute a moratorium on disconnections of telephone and internet services during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill is named the “Continuing Online Networking, Negating Economic Conditions on Technology at Home Act” or the “CONNECT at Home Act.” It was submitted on May 12 by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

In a Tuesday press release, Sen. Merkley reiterated the current importance of nationwide internet access. “Oregonians and people across America deserve to know that as we weather the social and economic consequences of this storm together, they will still have [to] be able to go to work, go to school, buy groceries, and stay connected to loved ones—all of which many depend on the internet to do,” said the Senator. “Congress should include this protection in the next coronavirus response bill.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) previously asked Internet service providers (ISPs) to voluntarily sign the “Keep Americans Connected” pledge as a promise not to terminate service to small-business or residential customers who are currently unable to pay bills. The new Senate bill goes further, imposing requirements with penalties for ISPs that disconnect customers.

The bill would remain in effect “180 days after the date on which the COVID–19 emergency terminates.” ISPs could be fined $100 per day of service disconnection for customers who are unable to pay. The FCC would then be required to use the collected proceeds “to provide assistance to low-income individuals who lack access to affordable broadband service due to the COVID–19 emergency.” Customers and state attorneys would also be permitted to sue ISPs for disconnecting their services.