How service providers in North America are supporting their customers during a pandemic

Couple Sitting On Sofa At Home Using Laptop Computer And Watching TV

Isolation is the keyword in the wake of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, and the tens of millions staying home are increasingly leaning on wireless networks to stay in touch and entertained.

With many working from home, and children absent from school, demand for bandwidth and throughput is steadily increasing. In response, wireless carriers and internet service providers (ISPs) have made a number of service changes to address the unusual circumstances in Canada and the United States.

All of these providers say they are monitoring network reliability to ensure service runs unabated, but the added strain may have a larger impact the longer the situation evolves.

Wireless and internet in the U.S.

A North American woman using fast 5G internet during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. carriers and service providers have followed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by signing a “Keep Americans Connected Pledge” that would maintain service to Americans during the pandemic. It is currently in effect for at least 60 days as of March 16, and mandates that they waive late fees, open their Wi-Fi hotspots to everyone and not cut anyone off for unpaid bills for home and small business customers.

AT&T

AT&T has waived all fees for data overage, even though it also notes that most of its internet customers already have unlimited data. It has also added an extra 15GB of data for unlimited plans that come with a monthly tethering limit for each line. AT&T Unlimited Elite customers could get 45GB/month of tethering automatically per line through the new deal. 

Low-income households can also get internet access for $10/month as part of the company’s Access from AT&T service. It is also expanding that service to households in the National School Lunch Program and Head Start, plus offering two months free for anyone who signs up by April 30.

All AT&T Wi-Fi hotspots are open to anyone to use, regardless of their carrier. All businesses, universities and schools will get Cisco Webex Meetings video conferencing for free for the next 90 day, and any customer calling a CDC Level 3 country during the pandemic will get 50 percent off long-distance fees.

Verizon

Verizon has waived all late and overage fees over the course of the pledge for residential and small business customers, effective until May 13. That also applies to activation and upgrade fees as well, though no end date has been confirmed. Consumer and small business customers will get 15GB of additional data, retroactive to March 25, and running until April 30. The company is also extending unlimited domestic calling to all eligible plans that don’t already have it until April 30. 

As of March 22, Lifeline service subscribers will see all bills waived for two billing cycles, and as of April 3, an affordable internet option will be available for low-income households. 

All long distance calls to CDC Level 3 countries (Europe, China, Iran, Venezuela, South Korea) are free until April 30 for postpaid, small business and landline home phone customers. There are exemptions, however, with Iran, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovenia only getting 300 free minutes per month. Prepaid customers get 300 minutes free to call any of the Level 3 countries.

The company is working closely with first responders and public health facilities to keep data and communications flowing, while also deploying portable cell sites to expand capacity and coverage.

Sprint

Sprint is offering much of the same service relief its competitors have, including unlimited data for all customers with data caps, effective March 18, and active for 60 days. Customers with a device capable of acting as a Wi-Fi hotspot will get an extra 20GB of data to use when tethering, regardless of whether they pay for that feature or not as part of their monthly plan.

It is also encouraging customers to enable Wi-Fi Calling on their smartphones to reduce congestion on its network. Sprint has also partnered with T-Mobile to open access to the latter’s network for better coverage.

Customers will be free of any per-minute tolls when calling CDC Level 3 countries. Sprint also won’t charge late or overage fees, nor will cut off service for unpaid bills.

It should be noted that T-Mobile also formally completed its acquisition of Sprint (the new merged company will be known as T-Mobile) on April 1, and it’s expected that T-Mobile’s COVID-19 response will take precedence as the two merge services.

T-Mobile

Click here for more information on what T-Mobile is currently doing for its customers during the pandemic.

Comcast

Comcast is also taking a number of steps to relieve customers by increasing access to the internet and TV content. 

Wireless access and internet in Canada

A family in the USA watching 5G-enabled television.

Rogers 

Rogers has waived long-distance fees for voice calls within Canada for those with plans that don’t include nationwide calling. Long-distance calls to the U.S. and other countries aren’t included. That also includes customers who are on Fido and Chatr.

However, Canadians abroad who are on postpaid plans can use their talk, text and data services without incurring any roaming fees. That covers 180 countries, including the U.S. and Mexico.

Thus far, the carrier hasn’t lifted monthly data caps for its wireless customers, but has done so for home and business internet subscribers until May 31. It should be noted, though, that a “vast majority” of them already have unlimited bandwidth plans, so it’s arguably more impactful for anyone who doesn’t. Business customers can also get the first six months free when signing up for Microsoft Teams Commercial Cloud. The package includes Office and other collaborative tools.

To make things easier for TV subscribers, some pay-TV channels will be available to watch freely. Rogers plans to rotate them until April 30. Sportsnet and TSN will rebroadcast the Toronto Raptors 2019 playoff run to the NBA championship for those with access to those channels, or subscribe to the Sportsnet Now and TSN Direct apps. NHL Live will also be open to everyone, including non-subscribers, until April 30, letting anyone stream any game played in the suspended 2019-20 season.

The company also committed to not suspending or disconnecting wireless and home internet access if customers have trouble paying the monthly bill until June 14. “We will support our customers facing financial uncertainty because of COVID-19 with more flexible payment options,” said a statement on the website.

Bell

Bell has waived all roaming charges through its Roam Better service and pay-per-use until April 30. The company says it has also actively sent text messages to Canadians abroad about Canadian consular support. This also applies to Roam Sweet Roam under the company’s Virgin Mobile brand.

Residential internet customers with any brand under Bell’s banner will not get charged overage fees for going over monthly data caps. As of March 19, it is also giving those working from home with Turbo Hubs, Turbo Sticks and MiFi devices an extra 10GB. They will also get $10 credit applied to their current and next billing cycles.

The company addressed why the additional bandwidth wasn’t uncapped in a statement on its website: “Providing unlimited usage to all Turbo Hub, Turbo Stick and MiFi customers would put wireless network performance at risk during a critical time for Canadians. We sincerely hope the extra 10 GB of data and $10 credit provide you with more peace of mind during this situation.”

On the TV side, CTV News Channel and CP24 are available as free previews for Bell Fibe TV, Alt TV and Bell Satellite TV customers. Users can also access those two channels live on their respective websites and apps. Moreover, the channel previews will also extend to “a wide range of family, educational, lifestyle and entertainment channels throughout March and April.”

Telus

Telus has waived all of its  roaming charges until April 30, which also applies to its Koodo and Public Mobile brands. It has also waived overage charges for home internet customers who might have incurred extra usage fees because they don’t have unlimited bandwidth plans.

In 2016, Telus started offering low-income families a high-speed internet package called Internet for Good for $10/month as part of the federal government’s Connecting Families initiative. The company says more than 200,000 are currently accessing it, and is waiving all fees associated with it for two months, as of the announcement on March 27.

There will be flexible payment options for anyone struggling to pay their monthly bill on time, and Telus confirmed it won’t cut anyone off if they’re unable to pay.

Customer of North American service provider using 5G-enabled virtual healthcare.

On the healthcare front, Telus Health is expanding its Babylon virtual health service and making it available for free to anyone in B.C., Alberta and Ontario. Users can download the app on iOS or Android and use the Symptom Checker, as well as virtually see a doctor and get prescriptions.

Akira is another bilingual virtual care app that is available to 500,000 Canadians through their employers. It also provides access to health practitioners at any time of the day or night. These apps may be under increased strain because of the pandemic, so Telus says it is trying to bring in more doctors and practitioners to meet the demand.

Freedom Mobile and Shaw

Shaw Communications, which owns Freedom Mobile, is offering its Go WiFi hotspots free to all Canadians, regardless of carrier, wherever they are available. The company is giving customers on plans with 3GB of LTE data or less an extra 2GB per month to stay connected, and the offer extends to those on plans that have no data at all. It hasn’t announced anything yet as it relates to long-distance or roaming fees.

The company is giving customers who have signed up to the government’s Connecting Families initiative a two-month credit. 

Videotron

Videotron has waived all roaming for its Daily Traveller Pass, along with pay-per-use fees, until April 30 for any customers outside Canada. It has also removed all data caps for home and business internet customers until April 30 as well. It doesn’t appear that these measures apply to its Fizz Mobile brand.

On the TV side, it is turning some channels into free previews until April 30, including open access to some on-demand content for residential customers via the Helix or Illico set top boxes under the “Free for Everyone” section.

SaskTel 

SaskTel started waiving data overage charges for both postpaid and prepaid customers, effective March 17, running until April 30. Anyone on an unlimited monthly data plan will still be subjected to throttling after a certain threshold, meaning reduced speeds. The company doesn’t mention cancelling long distance or roaming charges.

Since its home and business internet plans are already unlimited, there are no overage charges to waive there. On the TV side, residential maxTV and maxTV Stream customers will get free access to 50 news and entertainment channels, which are all listed here. Subscribers under the Connected Families initiative will also pay no fees for two months through a $20 credit, retroactive to March.

Other Internet service providers

Several providers in Canada have acted to reduce or waive data overages and caps for their customers. TekSavvy, Distributel, Xplornet and Eastlink, among others, are taking those steps for the near-term. 

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