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Infrastructure Law to Transform High-Speed Internet Discount Program

$14.2 billion will cut cost of getting connected, more will build out the system

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A technician installs fiber optic and an internet splitter box.

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In January, this year’s pandemic-inspired Emergency Broadband Benefit program will be remade into the Affordable Connectivity Program, thanks to $14.2 billion that became available when President Joe Biden signed Congress’ bipartisan infrastructure bill into law Nov. 15.

The programs, which both provide subsidies for low-income households to afford high-speed internet access, aren’t identical. The nearly six-month-old Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program will continue to accept applications, and those who are on the program as of Jan. 1 will continue to receive its higher subsidies for 60 days. If those beneficiaries meet the new income guidelines, they are expected to be transferred into the Affordable Connectivity Program.

“Historic investments will be made in expanding the reach of broadband infrastructure to those who lack it as well as in making access to high-speed internet more affordable,” says Nancy LeaMond, AARP’s chief advocacy and engagement officer. “The legislation extends the broadband subsidy program which now benefits more than 7 million people — of which 40 percent are over 50.”


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Some comparisons:

Income. Households with incomes up to 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines will be eligible on Jan. 1. EBB rules cap income 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. That exception will be eliminated in the new program. So to qualify, a family of three will be able to have an income of more than $44,000 in 2022 — federal poverty guidelines for next year have not been released yet — compared with this year’s $29,646.

Subsidy. $30 a month in the new program, $50 a month now for most beneficiaries.

Transparency. The new program will prohibit upselling — telling customers that they can’t use the benefit on their older, less-expensive data plans — or requirements for extended service contracts, complaints that some beneficiaries have had with their carriers in the EBB program. It also will require companies to provide standard labeling for internet download and upload speeds, monthly service costs, taxes, any equipment and other fees, a move inspired by nutrition labels on food.

“Come Jan. 1, if they 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 a lower subsidy.

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 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines high-speed broadband as 25 megabits per second (Mbps) 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. What’s unknown is what will happen to the $2.2 billion remaining at the end of October from the EBB’s original $3.2 billion allocation, Kahsai says. AARP is working with other public interest groups and the FCC to see if any EBB money remaining when that program ends can roll over into the new fund.

$65B for improving broadband access

You may qualify

The 2021 income limit for the Emergency Broadband Benefit program increases with the number of people living in the same household. Others who have experienced a substantial loss of income since the pandemic started in 2020 may also qualify.

Persons              Income limit

1                                      $17,388

2                                     $23,517

3                                     $29,646

4                                     $35,775

5                                     $41,904

6                                     $48,033

7                                     $54,162

8                                     $60,291

Source: Federal Communications Commission, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

The $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program is just a part of the $65 billion in the new law earmarked to improve broadband access.

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 — often rural areas where population density is low and mountainous areas that can be challenging for companies to reach — that will benefit families of all incomes. This new service must have speeds of at least 100 Mbps for downloads and 20 Mbps for uploads, speeds that match today’s needs for multiple users in one household and increasing desire for streaming video.

Each state will start out with $100 million from that pot of money and will 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.

Apply now for EBB program

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 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.

In the meantime, people can continue to apply for the Emergency Broadband Benefit program at getemergencybroadband.org. As of Nov. 28, more than 8.067 million households had applied.

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 Ohio round out the top five. Louisiana, Kentucky and New Mexico have the fourth-, sixth-, and fifth-highest percentages of residents living in poverty, respectively; Ohio is 18th.

As of Nov. 1, more than 2 of every 5 EBB program subscribers were older than 50. According to the FCC, 26.8 percent were ages 50 to 64; 12.9 percent, 65 to 84; and less than 1 percent, 85-plus.

What’s the benefit?

The present Emergency Broadband Benefit 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 one-time 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 EBB?

People who experienced a substantial loss of income because of job loss or furlough since Feb. 29, 2020. A qualifying household must have a total income in 2020 at or below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers.

People who use the federal Lifeline discount program. 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 the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (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. The Tribal Link Up program provides additional discounts for those who live on Native American lands. 

People who already use a discounted internet service from a high-speed internet provider that is aimed at low-income households. AT&T, for example, offers internet access for $10 or less a month for households in which at least one person participates in the government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 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 also will 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.

Households living on tribal Native American lands are eligible for a higher internet discount of up to $75 a month, generally because high-speed internet in these areas is more expensive. The program also will offer a one-time discount of up to $100 for the purchase of a computer or tablet for those who are eligible, as long as consumers contribute $10 to $50 toward the purchase price. Those who get the benefits from the Lifeline Tribal Link Up discount program will be eligible to get EBB benefits as well.

College students who receive student aid in the form of federal Pell grants.

Where to apply

GetEmergencyBroadband.org. Check your qualifications, apply online and explore local internet providers.
 

Check providers in your area

Federal Communications Commission 

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., which operates the Lifeline fund created from a tax on phone service, has a toll-free information number for the EBB program, 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. Its benefits will last beyond the stimulus.

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. 
 

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.

This story, originally published March 2, 2021, was updated to add information about the new Affordable Connectivity Program and the signing of the bill.

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.

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.