Person using a home computer with a hand holding a computer mouse
Photo: Gary John Norman/Getty Images

Help is now available for 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.

The assistance is coming through 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 starts today, May 12, 2021.

It is 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 a participating provider. Families have to pitch in between $10 and $50 toward the purchase price. The discount is applied directly to the consumers’ monthly bill, and there is a limit of one monthly service discount, and one device discount, per household.

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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?

You qualify for help if your household if at least one person meets any of these criteria.

• You qualify for the existing Lifeline program.
• You receive benefits under a free or reduced-price school lunch program or school breakfast program.
• You lost your job or experienced a substantial loss of income during the pandemic since Feb. 29, 2020, and your household had a total 2020 income at or below $99,000 for single filers, or $198,000 for joint filers.
• 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) are participating in the program, but many have signed on. The FCC is maintaining a web page where consumers can check to see about their own ISP. The site lists about 825 providers, broken out by state. The benefit is available to eligible both new and existing customers.

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.  

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 if it is based on participation in the free or reduced-price lunch program or the school breakfast program. 

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?

Consumers can enroll now through an approved internet provider, or at the Emergency Broadband Benefit program’s website. The FCC is encouraging participating internet providers contact eligible households to let them know about the benefit and how to sign up for it.

There are three ways to sign up:

    • Contact your participating provider.
    • Enroll online at the emergency broadband website.
    • Sign up through the mail.

To learn more, or get a mail-in application, you can call 833-511-0311.

Note that this is a temporary program; 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, the FCC says that when the discount ends, internet providers will have to notify participating customers, and let them know the cost of continuing with their plan without the discount. Importantly, you will need to opt in to the plan to continue with the service to avoid automatically being subscribed to a pricier service.

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