A small library that lends out mobile hotspots is facing a tough budget decision because one of its borrowers accidentally ran up $880 in roaming fees, and Verizon refuses to waive or reduce the charges. The library has an “unlimited” data plan for the hotspots, but Verizon says it has to pay the $880 to cover less than half a gigabyte of data usage that happened across the border with Canada.
Tully Free Library in Tully, New York, a town of fewer than 3,000 people, lends out three Verizon hotspots to a rural population that has limited Internet access. The library started the hotspot-lending program with a grant from the Central New York Library Resources Council, which paid the bill for two years. Crucially, the service plan with Verizon blocked international roaming so that library borrowers wouldn’t rack up unintentional charges if they happened to cross the Canadian border.
But when the grant ran out, Tully Free Library had to get a new contract and service plan, and the organization began paying the bill itself. The new plan seemed to be identical to the old one, but it enabled international roaming.
“They never said to us, ‘Do you want international roaming blocked?'” Tully Free Library Director Annabeth Hayes told Ars. “That wasn’t something that occurred to me because it was blocked before.”
$880 for 440 megabytes
One day, a library borrower had a hotspot in his car when he made a long drive that took him through Canada for a few hours.
“I think he said he was taking his brother to the airport. We’re in the middle of the state so we’re pretty much two hours from Canada… He was only over the border for about four hours and he said he wasn’t even using the hotspot,” Hayes said. “It was just on in the car and apparently it was pinging a tower so that tower was incurring all these fees.”
We don’t know exactly what the data usage consisted of, but perhaps the borrower had one of his devices connected to the hotspot and it did some automatic updates. In any case, the library’s next bill from Verizon included an $880.33 charge for about 440MB of international data. Until that bill came, Hayes didn’t realize that international roaming wasn’t blocked on the new plan.
Hayes called Verizon and was able to get international roaming blocked going forward, but the library hasn’t been able to convince the company to waive the bill or even reduce the charge.
“I ended up contacting their executive communications department, and the person there said she had to contact their legal team because our contract was under the government/educational department,” Hayes said. “She contacted the legal team and they went back and forth and finally decided that no, we couldn’t have our fee waived.”
On Friday last week, a representative of Verizon’s Executive Relations department told Hayes the following in an email that Hayes shared with Ars:
Per our telephone conversation, The Executive Relations Office will not be making the courtesy adjustments for the international data overage accrued in the amount of $880.33. You advised your library allows end-users to remove the devices from your facility and the devices are unrestricted. Without the proper restrictions and provisions in place, this makes your company liable… Thank you for your patience in the resolution of this matter and your continued loyalty to Verizon.
Verizon’s response “was a very legal argument and yes, that’s a correct legal argument,” Hayes said. “But if you know the back story, it seems really unfair.”
We contacted Verizon spokespeople about the Tully billing problem yesterday morning and again today, and we will update this article if we get a response.
Update: Five hours after this article was published, Verizon responded to Ars and said it would provide Tully Free Library an account credit for the full amount of $880.33. “We are crediting the customer’s account and have reached out to let them know,” a Verizon spokesperson said. Hayes told us she hadn’t yet heard from Verizon about the account credit, but we’ll update this article again after we learn more.
Verizon charges $2.05 per megabyte of data usage in Canada on a pay-as-you-go basis. But Verizon also offers a “Monthly International Travel Plan” that allows 100 minutes of voice calls, 100 sent text messages, and half a gigabyte of data usage in Canada and about 185 other countries for $70 a month. A similar plan with more voice and text usage and 2GB a month costs $130. Based on those prices, it seems likely that Verizon could give Tully a sizable refund and still cover its own roaming costs for the 440MB.
Charge is 55% of library’s hotspot budget
But for the Tully Free Library, $880 is a lot—about 55% of the library’s annual hotspot budget, Hayes said. Generally, the library pays $40 a month for each of the three hotspots, for a total of $120 a month. Between the regular charges and the unexpected roaming fee, the latest bill came to $1,000.
“I don’t think we would just say, ‘OK, that’s it, we’re not going to have any hotspots,'” Hayes said when asked how the library will handle the budget problem. “We know how important it is to people. We would have to cut in another area, either materials or programming.” Most of the library’s $200,000 total annual budget comes from local taxes, and the rest from grants and donations, she said.
The hotspots are important because of how limited home Internet access is in the area. People take advantage of the free Wi-Fi available at the library and a McDonald’s about seven miles away. Hayes sometimes “finds people camped out in her parking lot on laptops, logged onto the library’s free Wi-Fi” when she arrives for work in the morning, a Syracuse Post-Standard article in April said. But the hotspots let people temporarily get online at home.
“A lot of the Internet providers simply won’t run lines down certain roads, they’ll go halfway and they decide there aren’t enough people who live down that road, so we’re not going to go down there,” Hayes said. “We get a lot of people who either don’t have Internet at home because they can’t afford it or it just simply doesn’t reach to their house… we have a waiting list for the hotspots and it’s been a really popular item to borrow at the library.”
“Unlimited data” capped at 25GB
Aside from the roaming bill, Hayes is facing another new problem with Verizon. The hotspot data plans seemed to be truly unlimited when the regional library council paid for them, allowing borrowers to stream video or do other data-heavy activities. But since the plan changeover, Verizon has capped their data at 25GB a month, even though the new plan seemed to be identical to the old one, Hayes said.
The bill Hayes showed us describes their hotspot plan as “unlimited monthly gigabytes.” But once the hotspots hit 25GB, they become unusable, Hayes said. The restriction seems to be similar to one Verizon imposed on the Santa Clara County fire department during a wildfire response in 2018.
“Now we have to tell patrons, ‘You can’t stream anything, you can just visit websites and do your email and stuff like that,'” Hayes said.
The bill with the $880 in roaming charges was due on August 2, but the library hasn’t paid it yet. “Verizon told us not to pay it while they were figuring out if they were going to waive it or not so we have not paid it yet,” Hayes said. She hasn’t given up on her attempts to get the roaming fee waived.
“I think we still have a month or so to try to figure out what to do,” she said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do if we can’t get them to change their mind… I’m kind of assuming that they will eventually, I just need to get them to see that they were wrong.”