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How to Find a Cheap Internet Plan

Major providers, local services offer discounted, high-speed broadband for those who qualify

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Sarah Rogers (Getty Images)

Imagine losing something as basic as electricity or water because you can’t afford to pay.

That’s what could happen to millions of low-income American consumers on the verge of losing another must-have utility — high-speed internet — because of the imminent end of the federal government’s subsidized Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).

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Especially since the start of the pandemic, high-speed internet has become as essential as any other household utility, enabling consumers to connect to education, entertainment, health care and jobs that are integral to life today.

Nearly 4 in 5 of Americans agree or strongly agree that internet service is as important as water or electricity, according to an October Consumer Reports survey of more than 2,000 adults. But more than a quarter of the survey respondents say affording their monthly internet costs is somewhat or very difficult; 84 percent pay at least $50 a month for broadband access.

The question confronting many in the coming months: Once ACP is gone, how will I afford and find high-speed internet? Users can stick with plans they have through the ACP, but without the subsidy they’ll likely have to pay $30 or more a month.

Major internet providers offer discounted rates outside the ACP. What you’ll pay, at which speed and the potential for data caps is worth looking into.

Law’s money is running out

To enable consumers of all income levels to benefit from high-speed broadband, Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act in November 2021. It authorized $30-a-month subsidies to qualified households based on income and other factors. Those on tribal lands could receive a $75-a-month subsidy toward their internet bill.

Thanks to the law, many of the 22.5 million program participants effectively paid nothing for monthly internet speeds that could reach up to 100 megabits per second (Mbps). Others received access they would otherwise not be able to afford.

The ACP program is now on life support. The original $14.2 billion allocation for this program will be exhausted in late spring. As a result, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program administrators stopped accepting new applications in February, and unless additional money is allocated, April will be the program’s last full month.

Stopgap legislation is still on the table

Government officials across the political spectrum have decried the situation. To attempt to keep the program going, a bipartisan group of senators and members of the House has introduced the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act of 2024.

A politically diverse group including Sens. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.) and several dozen House cosponsors support the bill. Both the House and Senate versions would allocate an additional $7 billion for the program, and the bills have been assigned to the houses’ appropriations committees since Jan. 10.

“With 30 cosponsors in the House from both parties, we feel confident in the bill’s progress,” said Aaron White, Welch’s press spokesman. “There are so many folks in red and rural districts that benefit from the ACP.”

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If the bill passes, it will provide money for the program only through the end of 2024.

“The ACP was never intended to be a short-term solution. Congress needs to figure out how to continually fund the ACP,” says Jim Willcox, senior electronics editor for Consumer Reports.

Find out ways to stay connected

Consumers have options. Discounted high-speed internet, though often not as low as ACP rates and not always with the 100 Mbps speed the program mandated, is available for those who meet ACP eligibility criteria.

Verizon Fios customers can receive 300 Mbps service for $20 a month through its Verizon Forward program if they meet one of a list of requirements, including:

  • Transferring over their current ACP benefit before the program ends.
  • Applying for a federal Pell Grant within the past year.
  • Or qualifying for a low-income assistance program such as Lifeline, which is another federal subsidy program for internet and phone service, or Medicaid.

AT&T offers up to 100 Mbps access for $30 a month, either through its fiber optic or its mobile internet service.

Comcast/Xfinity’s Internet Essentials program provides up to 50 Mbps for $9.95 or 100 Mbps for $29.95.

Cable TV company Comcast, based in Philadelphia, had the largest number of broadband subscribers nationwide at the end of September, according to Leichtman Research Group in Dunham, New Hampshire. Charter/Spectrum, based in Stamford, Connecticut, is number 2. Dallas-based AT&T and New York-based Verizon place third and fourth.

Hundreds of internet service providers operate across the country, but none has coverage everywhere.

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About 550 municipal broadband networks offer service to residents of their areas, according to the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which has offices in Minneapolis; Portland, Maine; and Washington, D.C. Another 250 electric cooperatives are deploying or developing plans to add internet service in their coverage areas, says the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, a trade association based in Arlington, Virginia.

A number of state organizations, including those in California, New York and Seattle, have created searchable websites that list low-cost broadband providers. A more comprehensive nationwide list, searchable by state, is available from EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit that works to make low-cost internet available to all, says Diana Rodriguez, vice president for programs and strategy.

EveryoneOn’s locator tool lists internet service available by zip code, based on financial criteria. Details indicate each program’s cost, maximum speeds and any data limits.

How much speed is enough for you?

Some consumers may not need 100 Mbps. Those with fewer simultaneous users who use the internet for less taxing services such as emailing, web surfing and watching standard-definition TV will not have problems with slower speeds. But those who have a number of people all watching high-definition television, bingeing on streaming services or playing video games will need more.

To help you figure out how much speed you’ll need, the FCC offers a Broadband Speed Guide that approximates the type of plan you’ll likely require based on your internet activity.

For those households watching high-definition video and simultaneously browsing the web or sending email on one device, the agency suggests a minimum 12 to 25 Mbps download speed. But for a household with four users all watching high-definition video, videoconferencing, playing games and listening to music, 25 Mbps should be the minimum available speed.

That might underestimate your needs. Consumer Reports notes that two TVs simultaneously streaming 4K high-definition content alone would require at least 50 Mbps. Add to that one user sending emails, another playing a video game and a third streaming music, and your requirements approach 100 Mbps.

In 2015, the FCC defined high-speed broadband as service that offers a minimum 25 Mbps. But that looks to some to be out of date.

“We advocate for a minimum download speed of 100 Mbps,” EveryoneOn’s Rodriguez says.

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