En español | The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a plan to provide eligible low-income households with discounts of up to $50 a month to help cover internet bills during the pandemic, when reliable high-speed connectivity is critical for working and learning remotely, getting important health information, keeping telehealth appointments and staying connected with others.
The $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) Program was formally approved by the FCC on Feb. 25, and the federal agency hopes to have the program up and running within 60 days.
"This is a program that will help those at risk of digital disconnection,” said acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. “It will help those sitting in cars in parking lots just to catch a Wi-Fi signal to go online for work.... It will help those who worry about choosing between paying a broadband bill and paying rent or buying groceries."
AARP has long worked for low-cost high-speed internet solutions for older Americans. “The Emergency Broadband Benefit will help older adults get and stay connected to the internet during the pandemic, and it can provide a road map for more long-lasting policies,” says AARP Senior Legislative Representative Dawit Kahsai.
Among those who may be eligible for the monthly discount of up to $50 will be people who already use a discounted internet service from a high-speed internet provider aimed at low-income households. AT&T, for example, offers internet access for $5 to $10 a month for households where at least one person participates in the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Cox offers internet service for $9.95 a month for new customers that have at least one primary student in grades K-12 who qualifies for public assistance in their household.
The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program is open to:
- Households that participate in existing low-income or pandemic relief programs offered by high-speed internet providers
- Current subscribers to the FCC's Lifeline internet discount program, including those receiving Medicaid, SNAP or SSI benefits
- Households with kids who receive free or reduced-price school breakfast or lunch;
- Current recipients of federal Pell grants for college
- Those who have lost jobs and seen their income reduced during the pandemic
The FCC already operates the Lifeline discount program that offers as much as 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 SNAP, Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). For a family of four to qualify based on 135 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, for example, annual income would need to come in below $35,775.
Households whose children get free or low-cost school meals will also be eligible for the monthly discount of up to $50, as will people who have lost their jobs or had their income reduced in the past year. Low-income college students who receive student aid in the form of federal Pell grants qualify as well.
Households living on tribal Native American lands will be eligible for a higher internet discount of up to $75 a month. The program will also offer a one-time discount of up to $100 for the purchase of a computer or tablet to those who are eligible, as long as participating providers contribute $10-$50 toward the purchase price.
The FCC said it will spend the next two months developing the enrollment system and coordinating with high-speed internet providers. “We have to get this right because this system will need to enroll millions of households who will benefit from the program,” Rosenworcel said.
The digital divide
A study by Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), in partnership with the Humana Association, found that nearly 22 million older Americans lack high-speed internet access at home — a problem that has become increasingly critical during the pandemic. Poor internet access not only limits access to essential public health information, social services and digital health care services, but it can also lead to risk of social isolation, which has been linked to reduced quality of life and premature death. OATS is an affiliate of AARP.
According to the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of Americans think that the internet has been essential during the COVID-19 outbreak. Nevertheless, somewhere between 21 and 42 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet, according to BroadbandNow.com, a website that provides information and research about internet plans. “AARP is hopeful that the EBB program is just the first of many steps that Congress and the FCC will take toward a more permanent solution to closing the digital divide,” says AARP's Kahsai.
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.