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Help is now on the way for millions of families struggling to pay for a decent internet connection during the COVID-19 pandemic, when web access is needed more than ever by people studying, working, shopping, and job hunting from home.

Earlier this year the Federal Communications Commission voted to formally establish the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, a $3.2 billion federal effort to provide discounts on internet service and equipment to many low-income households.

The program was created by Congress as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, which was passed at the end of last year. 

It was designed “to lower the cost of high-speed internet service for those struggling to get the connectivity they need during the ongoing pandemic,” the acting FCC chair, Jessica Rosenworcel, said in a statement. “It’s a challenge that is all too real for too many families.”

What Does the Program Provide?

Eligible households can get a discount of up to $50 per month on internet service ($75 per month for those living on tribal lands). The discount also applies to modem/router fees. In addition, the program offers a one-time discount of up to $100 toward the purchase of a laptop, desktop, or tablet from participating providers. Families have to pitch in between $10 and $50 toward the purchase price.

According to the FCC, the act doesn’t specify a minimum broadband speed for the program. 

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And while you can get the discount with internet plans bundled with phone and texting services, bundles with TV service aren’t eligible.

The FCC already has a program called Lifeline for low-income households that provides a discount of $9.25 per month that can be used on either fixed broadband or mobile phone service. But only about 20 percent of those eligible for Lifeline sign up for the program, according to remarks by Geoffrey Starks, an FCC commissioner. A majority of those who do choose to apply the discount to mobile service, not fixed internet service.

Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel at Consumer Reports, calls the Emergency Broadband Benefit program “the first step of many that need to be taken to make internet service more affordable for Americans. 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.”

Who Is Eligible for the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program?

You’re eligible if your household meets any one of these criteria:

• You qualify for the existing Lifeline program.
• You receive benefits under a free and reduced-price school lunch program or school breakfast program.
• You lost your job or experienced a substantial loss of income since Feb. 29, 2020.
• You’re a student who receives a federal Pell Grant.
• You meet the eligibility criteria for your participating internet provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 program.

Not all internet service providers (ISPs) will be participating in the program. The FCC is maintaining a web page where consumers can check to see whether their internet provider has signed on. The site lists about 300 providers that have so far signed up to participate, broken out by state.

The FCC says that more information will be coming about eligibility due to loss of income. For now, households will be able to enroll in the program by documenting a substantial loss of income with a layoff or furlough notice, an application for unemployment insurance benefits, or similar documentation. It will then will be verified by the Universal Service Administrative Company.

Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, is among the ISPs participating. “The Emergency Broadband Benefit is a welcome step in getting assistance directly to those in need during this pandemic, and we plan to participate in the effort,” says Mitch Rose, Comcast’s executive vice president for federal government affairs.

When and How Can You Apply?

The FCC says the program is not yet open to consumers but will be within the next few weeks. Once it’s in place, you can apply through your ISP or directly with the USAC, which administers the Lifeline program. “We are working to build out systems that allow for multiple ways to apply for the benefit for eligible households,” an FCC spokesperson told us via email.

The providers will verify that you qualify through a database administered by the FCC. A participating provider can also use an alternate verification process, provided it’s approved by the FCC. A school must verify the eligibility of a household based on the participation in the free and reduced-price lunch program or the school breakfast program. 

Internet providers will offer discounted rates to their customers and get reimbursed by the FCC from the program’s funds. 

The program’s rules stipulate that the discount will expire either when the money in the fund runs out or six months after the secretary of Health and Human Services declares the end of the COVID-19 health emergency.

To help families avoid sticker shock when the first bill without the discount arrives, the FCC says there will notifications about the funding status of the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, with warnings at the start of the program and as the funding is projected to be depleted. More information about warnings will be released in the coming weeks.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with new details about the broadband program. It was originally published Feb. 26, 2021.