All four of America's big carriers have announced that they'll be waiving late payment fees and won't cut service off for anyone unable to pay their bills because of the coronavirus pandemic. This policy will be in effect for the next 60 days and is, of course, a good thing, and one that is both kind and sensitive to the plight many people in this country will soon face: mass temporary (and probably many permanent) layoffs and huge economic uncertainty.
But, as you might expect, these policies are still being defined, and it remains deeply unclear how carriers will implement these fee and cancellation waivers. When contacted for this story, Verizon would not elaborate on how consumers could take advantage of the fee waiver beyond saying customers would need to get in touch with them for both fee waivers and service cancellation waivers. T-Mobile directed me to its website or to call 611, but wasn't clear on whether that was necessary for both fee waivers and service cancellation waivers. Sprint directed me to the MySprint app and online support center, and was again unclear about which waivers required customers contact them. AT&T told me customers would need to use online support or call for fee waivers, but that cancellation waivers were automatic (AT&T is postponing all service cancellations due to bill delinquency for 60 days). None were able to tell me if customers would have to prove economic hardship when requesting these courtesies.
Now, before I move on, I do want to be clear: if you are seriously concerned about paying your phone bill affecting your ability to, you know, have water or electricity or food at any point the next two months, you should absolutely consider taking advantage of these offers. But if you aren't in a dire situation, I think it's a pretty poor idea to rely on carriers to abide by these policies in a way that doesn't have potential consequences for you, even if they may only be temporary ones.
The first thing to know is that, based on my personal experience as a young, dumb, broke college student, carriers really don't take kindly to you missing a payment. Wireless carriers may send you to collections simply as a matter of policy if you are late more than a month on your postpaid wireless bill, and that can be an instant and severe black mark on your credit score. Getting these collections entries removed from your credit report is not an easy or exact science, and they live on your report for years. Simply trusting that AT&T or Verizon won't send you to collections because they said they wouldn't probably isn't smart unless you absolutely need to. People slip through the cracks, billing mistakes happen.
The second reason really just goes back to the first: people slip through the cracks. So, AT&T maybe doesn't cut your service off, but the late fees they said they'd waive? They didn't. And because you're not paying the fees, new fees on top of those fees may pile up. And this all means getting in touch with a customer service agent who may or may not be familiar with AT&T's policy they announced two months back, all the while wasting time you likely don't want to be on what was supposed to be a very simple thing.
Last but not least is the very promise carriers are making—that your service will not be disrupted in the event of missed payments. While I do want to take the carriers at their word here, the prospect of having your phone service "accidentally" turned off because of an issue implementing this coronavirus policy or some kind of quirk with your account is not a pleasant one to consider. Betting you'll be able to get your carrier to quickly and easily reactivate service while they see you've got a delinquent bill in their system is, to put it kindly, probably not wise.
All of this leads me to say: if you can pay your wireless bill, you should. Don't treat this policy as a get-out-of-jail-free card, and don't expect carriers to make it easy for you to take advantage of their promises to the FCC with regard to late fees or missed payments. It's entirely possible this will be as simple and straightforward as all their statements make it sound, but based on what they've told me so far, you should not assume that to be the case.