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How Cell Phone Companies Are Responding to COVID-19
The major carriers are waiving fees, boosting data allotments, and giving customers free international calling.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed daily life for all of us and sent a ripple through many industries. The wireless industry is no exception. But major carriers are stepping up to help out their customers in these challenging times.
The four biggest carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon—have all committed to not cutting off customers who can’t pay their bill because of this crisis. They’ve also implemented a number of policies that help customers stay connected to loved ones, work, and school.
But as the crisis goes into its third month and beyond, carriers' original commitments are coming to an end or changing, so be sure to keep up with the latest news from your provider. We'll update this page regularly.
There have been recent reports that carriers, despite signing on to the FCC's Keep Americans Connected pledge, are still canceling some customers' mobile service for late payments.7 This is alarming news, given how many people are counting on bill forgiveness right now.
The best thing you can do to protect yourself from late fees and disconnections right now is to be proactive: talk to your carrier directly before your payment is due, and ask for the relief you need. Be sure to document all relevant communications.
In this article we’ll walk through exactly what each carrier has committed to doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. But first, let’s talk about the Keep Americans Connected pledge.
The Keep Americans Connected Pledge
So far, the telecommunications industry’s most broad and important response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been the Keep Americans Connected pledge. This pledge was drafted by the FCC and reads:1
"Given the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on American society, [Company Name] pledges for the next 60 days to:
- not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic;
- waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and
- open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them."
The 60-day period began on March 13, and was set to expire on May 6. However, recently the FCC extended the pledge to last through at least June 30th. The pledge has been signed by more than 550 companies and associations, including the largest cell phone companies.
If you’re on a plan from one of these major carriers (or one of the prepaid companies that they own), you should already be receiving these benefits. If you have questions about your specific plan or your bill, you should contact your carrier directly.
But many companies are taking things a step further than this pledge. Here’s a closer look at what specific measures cell phone carriers are taking to keep their customers connected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cellular networks don’t have unlimited bandwidth. With so many people using data on their phones to work remotely, stream videos, and game during times of social isolation, the network may be strained. All of the major networks are working hard to keep their networks working at 100% capacity, but don’t be surprised if your data is a bit slower than normal.
AT&T’s COVID-19 response
Besides signing the pledge, closing stores, and offering bonuses to frontline employees, AT&T has rolled out some new plans and perks.
Starting on March 27, AT&T will offer the following:2
- A new $15 plan with 2 GB of data and unlimited talk and text
- For 60 days all phone plans will receive an automatic 10GB per month of additional data
- All users with an Unlimited Plus plan with tethering will receive 10 GB of additional tethering per month for 60 days
AT&T recently reiterated its commitment to helping customers during the pandemic, writing, "Through June 30, we’re committed to providing all residential and commercial postpaid wireless, home phone, or broadband customers up to 90 days from their initial past due date to pay their past due balance. In other words, customers who notify us of economic hardship due to COVID-19 have 90 days from their initial past due date or until June 30, whichever comes first, to pay their past due balance."
Sprint’s COVID-19 response
Sprint has limited its store hours and is working with T-Mobile to get its users access to T-Mobile’s network. But the main changes that Sprint customers will probably notice are the following:3
- Customers on limited-data plans now receive unlimited data for 60 days, beginning March 18
- 20 GB of free mobile hotspot data to eligible customers
- Per-minute toll charges are waived for international long-distance calls from the U.S. to CDC-defined Level 3 countries (which includes most of Europe)
T-Mobile’s COVID-19 response
Beginning on March 17, T-Mobile closed about 80% of its retail stores to safeguard employees and customers. But the mobile company is also offering additional benefits to new and current customers, like the following:4
- All T-Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile customers will get unlimited data for the next 60 days.
- These customers will also get 20 GB of mobile hotspot data.
- Free international calling to all Level 3 countries
- T-Mobile has launched a new, low-cost plan called the Connect plan. See details on this $15 a month plan below.
On April 27, 2020, T-Mobile reiterated its commitment to providing relief. The company wrote, "T-Mobile is extending our commitment to the FCC pledge through June 30, continuing to offer support for postpaid wireless, residential and small business customers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic."
Verizon’s COVID-19 response
Verizon Wireless has been a bit slower than other companies to offer things like free unlimited data to all customers. But the company has started to roll out some benefits and relief for its customers. These are the steps that Verizon has taken so far:5
- Unlimited domestic calling for all by-the-minute plans
- Free calling to CDC-designated Level 3 countries
- A tripling (3x) of wireless bandwidth to aid schools that are doing remote teaching.
- Wireless customers get a free, automatic 15 GB of data added to their plans.
Verizon has continued to offer new benefits to its customers during the pandemic, and recently recommitted to the Keep Americans Connected Pledge through June 30.
Other carriers’ COVID-19 responses
It’s not just the Big Four that are reacting to COVID-19 with swift action. Here’s a roundup of how mobile virtual network operators (MNVOs) and prepaid carriers are responding:6
- Mint Mobile is offering free unlimited data to all customers until April 14.
- Boost Mobile is giving customers free international calling to Level 3 countries, waiving reactivation fees, and giving an extra 20 GB of data to limited-data customers.
- Metro by T-Mobile is giving customers unlimited data for 60 days and free international calling to Level 3 countries.
- Consumer Cellular has signed the Keep Americans Connected pledge and has increased its 25 GB plan to a 55 GB plan.
As the swiftly moving COVID-19 pandemic develops, expect more carriers to offer some relief to their customers. It’s likely that the companies listed here will also change or expand their responses, so check back for updates.
If you want to know how other industries are responding to COVID-19, check out this roundup of how companies are offering aid.