The federal government's $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program to help low-income households get high-speed internet access is ready to accept new applicants, replacing 2021's temporary, pandemic-inspired Emergency Broadband Benefit program.
If you signed up for the previous program, you don’t have to do anything. Households will automatically be transferred to the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) if they meet the new income guidelines. But advocates strongly recommend proactively monitoring the changeover.
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Higher income limits for many
Both the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program and the Affordable Connectivity Program provide subsidies for low-income households to afford high-speed internet access, but they aren’t identical. Here's what changed Jan. 14, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) formally adopted the ACP.
Income guidelines. Households with incomes up to 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines are eligible for the ACP. Under the old rules, income was capped at 135 percent of federal poverty guidelines, except for those who experienced a significant loss of income because of job loss or furlough after Feb. 29, 2020.
You may qualify
The income limit for the Affordable Connectivity Program increases with the number of people living in the same household.
Persons Income limit*
Source: Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
That exception was eliminated in the new program. So, to qualify for the ACP, a family of three can have an income of up to $43,920 this year compared with $29,646 last year.
Benefit. The maximum monthly benefit will change to $30 a month, from $50 a month for households not located on tribal lands. Enrollees in the old plan will keep the $50 benefit through February; the new rate begins March 1. Those who enroll now will get $30 a month.
Transparency. The new program prohibits upselling — telling customers that they can’t use the benefit on their older, less-expensive data plans — or requirements for extended service contracts. These are complaints that some beneficiaries had with their carriers in the old program.
It also requires companies to provide standard labeling for internet download and upload speeds, monthly service costs, taxes, and any equipment and other fees — a move inspired by nutrition labels on food.
“If [internet providers] have the more affordable plan that works for you, you can choose it,” says Dawit Kahsai, senior legislative representative for AARP. So, participants in the new program could end up paying less, even with the lower subsidy.
Enrollees should make sure they know what their provider’s base plan costs and should tell their provider that that’s the plan they want, says Danielle Arigoni, director of livable communities for AARP. That way, even though the amount of their benefit will be less, they will be paying less out of pocket for their internet service.
Providers have been giving a lot of pushback, and the FCC is still working out some details, -Arigoni says.
AARP has long worked for low-cost internet solutions for older Americans, who need high-speed broadband for teleworking, medical and health-related information and news, online health care consultations with doctors and nurses, and interacting with loved ones and friends.
The FCC defines high-speed broadband as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for download speed and 3 Mbps for uploads. All of a company’s internet plans that meet the FCC standard will be eligible for the subsidy.
The Affordable Connectivity Program will continue until its money runs out. The FCC is considering what to do with the remaining Emergency Broadband Benefit money, according to an agency spokesman. As of the end of November, $1.68 billion remained of the EBB’s original $3.2 billion allocation, and Kahsai says AARP and other public interest groups are waiting to hear from the FCC to see if any of that money can be rolled into the new fund.
$65B for improving broadband access
The $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program is just a part of roughly $65 billion to improve access to high-quality, high-speed internet access contained in the bipartisan infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law Nov. 15.
Some of that money will go toward what Kahsai calls “digital equity.” The new law allocates $2.75 billion for digital literacy training to make sure that everyone — regardless of language, ability or age — has the skills needed to take advantage of their connection to the internet.
Some $42.5 billion is being allocated to bring high-speed internet to unserved areas that will benefit families of all incomes. These often include rural areas where population density is low and mountainous areas that can be challenging for companies to reach.
This new service must have speeds of at least 100 Mbps for downloads and 20 Mbps for uploads. These speeds match today’s needs for multiple users in one household and an increasing desiredemand for streaming video.
Each state will start out with $100 million from that pot of money, and they'll be able to get more based on a state’s unserved and underserved needs.
With the new law, “we have an opportunity to put a dent … in the digital divide,” Kahsai says.
8.9 million have applied for EBB
About 14.5 million Americans — and 22 percent of those 65 and older — don't have access to a high-speed internet connection, the FCC estimates. Other estimates say as many as 42 million people in the U.S. are on the wrong side of the digital divide. The FCC is now updating its high-speed broadband map and expects to have a more accurate picture of access when it is completed.
As of Dec. 30, 9.05 million households had applied for the EBB.
Puerto Rico, which has the second-highest poverty rate behind American Samoa among states and territories that are part of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, has the highest rate of EBB enrollment per 1,000 households. Louisiana, Kentucky, New Mexico and Mississippi round out the top five; those states have the fourth-, sixth-, fifth- and third-highest percentages of residents living in poverty.
As of Nov. 1, more than 2 of every 5 EBB program subscribers were older than 50. According to the FCC, 26.3 percent were ages 50 to 64; 13.1 percent, 65 to 84; and less than 1 percent, 85-plus.
What’s the benefit?
The Affordability Connectivity Program gives a discount of up to $50 a month toward high-speed internet service for eligible households and up to $75 a month for households on Native American tribal lands. Alaska, New Mexico and Oklahoma are the states with the highest percentages of Native Americans, according to the Census Bureau.
Eligible households also can receive a onetime discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer or tablet from participating providers if the consumer contributes $10 to $50 toward the purchase price.
Who is eligible for ACP?
Households that have an income at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline is $53,000.
People who use certain federal assistance programs, including Federal Public Housing Assistance, Lifeline, Medicaid, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Lifeline offers up to a $9.25 discount off monthly phone or internet bills to households that make less than 135 percent of the federal poverty guideline or have at least one family member in some public assistance program such as Medicaid, SNAP or SSI. For a family of four to qualify based on 135 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, annual income would need to come in below $35,775.
People who already use a discounted internet service from a high-speed internet provider that is aimed at low-income households. For example, AT&T offers internet access for $10 or less a month for households in which at least one person participates in SNAP. Cox offers internet service for $9.95 a month for new customers with at least one K-12 student in the household who qualifies for public assistance.
Households whose children get free or low-cost school meals.
Households that participate in programs specifically for tribes, such as Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance, Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations or Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
College students who receive student aid in the form of federal Pell grants.
Where to apply
ACPbenefit.org. Check your qualifications, apply online and explore local internet providers.
Check providers in your area
Older Adults Technology Services (OATS) from AARP through its AgingConnected service
EveryoneOn, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit
Need help figuring it out?
Universal Service Administrative Co., a nonprofit that operates the Lifeline fund created from a tax on phone service, has a toll-free information number for the ACP program, at 833-511-0311.
Look at longer-term program
If your income is low, also apply for the existing federal Lifeline program, which offers less of a discount.
Lifeline. A printable form also is available after selecting your state.
Ready to learn?
Senior Planet from AARP has free classes for anyone who wants to learn the basics after getting online.
The AARP Virtual Community Center also has regularly scheduled free technology classes.
Seek other help
AARP Foundation offers programs and services to help older adults secure jobs, benefits, refunds and social connections.
Connect2Affect from AARP Foundation can help you combat social isolation.
Ed Waldman contributed to this story. Originally published March 2, 2021, it has been updated to add information about the new Affordable Connectivity Program, which is replacing the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The number of program subscribers is also regularly updated.
John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and USA Today and has written books on investing and the 1998 financial crisis. Waggoner's USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.
Linda Dono is an executive editor for AARP. Previously, she served as a reporter and editor for USA Today, Gannett News Service and newspapers in four states, including The Cincinnati Enquirer.