COVID-19 Relief Package Will Help Families in Need of Internet Access

Here are the latest details on who's eligible and how to apply for a monthly benefit

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Update: President Donald Trump signed the $900 billion pandemic relief bill on Sunday night, so the provisions in the measure now become law. This article was originally published on Dec. 22, 2020.

A new omnibus COVID-19 relief bill expected to be signed into law today contains billions of dollars earmarked to help the millions of Americans struggling to access the internet.

The measure—part of a larger stimulus package that includes direct payments to many Americans, enhanced federal unemployment benefits, plus aid for schools, small businesses, and vaccine distribution—allocates $7 billion to increase access to broadband service for families with low incomes, rural addresses, and homes on Tribal lands.

About $3.2 billion from those funds will be devoted to an Emergency Broadband Benefit that consumer groups say will help the families of students and unemployed workers maintain the internet connections they need during the pandemic.

“When all of us are working, teaching, and getting our medical care online, it is an imperative to ensure everyone has connectivity,” says Marta L. Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports.

More on Broadband & the Digital Divide

CR has been advocating for this broadband program for months, as the pandemic further underscored the often-destructive consequences of the digital divide. More than 87,000 consumers have signed a petition in support of the measure, and CR has joined dozens of organizations in sending a recent coalition letter of support to Congress.

“If it wasn’t glaringly important before, the pandemic has confirmed the vital need of a broadband internet connection—one that is reliable, affordable, and for some of us, simply available,” says Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for CR. “Too many Americans are not able to access or afford broadband. This is especially true for people who’ve lost their jobs or can’t find regular work, since the coronavirus shuttered many businesses."

What the Measure Contains

Included in the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit is a $50-a-month discount—$75 a month for those living on Tribal lands—available to eligible households to defray the cost of broadband internet service. The discounts will be offered by local internet service providers, which are then reimbursed by the Federal Communications Commission. Eligible homes can also get up to $100 to help cover the cost of a laptop, desktop, or tablet.

Other elements of the bill include $1 billion to support broadband internet connectivity for those living on Tribal lands, plus $300 million to bring broadband to rural communities. In addition, $285 million is being allocated to fund a broadband pilot in communities near historically Black colleges.

The FCC is getting $65 million to develop better broadband data maps as required by Congress, plus $250 million to expand telehealth programs. There's also $1.9 billion in funding to remove and replace telecommunications equipment manufactured by foreign companies—notably Huawei and ZTE—that are deemed to be security risks.

Last, the bill contains $82 billion in educational funding, including $54.3 billion earmarked for K-12 schools and $22.7 billion for colleges and universities. The money can be used to provide computers and internet connections, as well as to buy personal protective equipment, fix ventilation systems, and pay for teacher training and summer school.

Who Is Eligible for Help

Those eligible for the $75 discount must live on Tribal lands. The $50 discount applies to individuals who are already eligible for the FCC's Lifeline program (details below), as well as families with children who qualify for free or discounted school lunch programs. It also applies to homes that have a college Pell grant recipient, and those who qualify for a low-income or COVID-19 discount program offered by an ISP.

But the benefit is also available to those who have recently lost jobs, or been furloughed, as a result of the pandemic.

According to the language in the legislation, the benefits will start as soon as the bill is signed and will continue in effect until six months after the secretary of health and human services declares the COVID-19 health emergency is over.

CR's Tellado calls the bill a good first step. "If we truly want to ensure everyone has an opportunity to reboot the American dream in this digital era," she adds, "there is far more work that needs to be done in the near term to invest in new and upgraded infrastructure.”

How You Can Apply

The details of the sign-up process haven't been rolled out yet. The FCC has five days to seek comment to work out the logistical details on how the program will be managed.

The commission can utilize the Universal Service Administration—which operates the Lifeline program—to implement the new program and determine eligibility. But the effort will be run independent of Lifeline.

Though the legislation goes into effect the moment it's signed, the FCC has 60 days—which must include a period of public comment—from the date it passes to actually set up the program.

It's likely, though, that you'll apply via a local internet provider, because ISPs will provide the discounts on service or devices service, then get reimbursed by the fund. We'll update this article with more details once they're available.

Because participation in the Emergency Broadband Benefit is voluntary for ISPs, you'll need to contact your local providers to see whether they're enrolled in the program.

If you want to check your eligibility for the Lifeline program, which provides low-income families with a monthly discount of up to $9.25 (or up to $34.25 in Tribal areas) on a phone or broadband service, here's what you need to know.

To be eligible, you must participate in certain federal assistance programs—Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, National School Lunch, or Medicaid—or have an income that falls at or below 135 percent of federal poverty guidelines. For more information, consult lifelinesupport.org.

There are three ways to apply: by filling out an online eligibility form, mailing a printed application (in English or Spanish), or contacting your local phone or internet company to see whether it offers a Lifeline program.

If you qualify, you will have 90 days to select a participating phone or internet company and sign up for service. You can also ask for the Lifeline benefit to be applied to your current service.


James K. Willcox

I've been a tech journalist for more years than I'm willing to admit. My specialties at CR are TVs, streaming media, audio, and TV and broadband services. In my spare time I build and play guitars and bass, ride motorcycles, and like to sail—hobbies I've not yet figured out how to safely combine.