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A Lifeline for Low-Income Households Is Available After the ACP

Older, more restrictive, less generous internet subsidy remains as Affordable Connectivity Program sputters

spinner image a neighborhood with wifi signals over the houses
Photo Collage: AARP; (Source: Getty Images (2))

The lights may be going out on the Affordable Connectivity Program that’s saved millions of American households $30 a month on broadband, but a small flicker of relief remains that many may not know about.

Lifeline, a decades-old federal subsidy program initially designed to make phone — and more recently internet — service more affordable is still a viable option for households earning 135 percent or less of federal poverty guidelines.

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“If you qualify for Medicaid or any of the other federal aid programs that are needs-based, you can qualify for Lifeline,” says Harold Feld, senior vice president at the digital rights think tank Public Knowledge in Washington, D.C.

Lifeline has stricter eligibility requirements and provides less help with fewer broadband providers than the ACP, but the ACP is halting sign-ups and running out of money after April unless Congress renews its financing. Lifeline offers a useful alternative to chip $9.25 a month off a broadband bill. Native Americans living on rural tribal lands are eligible for more.

To sum up the assessment of digital-equity advocates: It’s not great. But it’s not nothing and is worth a look.

How to qualify for the Lifeline subsidy

People are eligible for Lifeline’s $9.25 broadband subsidy if they:

  • Have a household income of no more than 135 percent of federal poverty guidelines ($20,331 for a person living alone in the continental United States), a considerable step down from the ACP’s 200 percent ceiling, or
  • Participate in one of several federal assistance programs, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Supplemental Security Income or Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefits. In comparison, the ACP’s criteria include more programs to qualify. 

Fewer companies participate in Lifeline program

Lifeline has less support from internet service providers than the ACP, which may prove problematic for ACP recipients. For $9.25, “there’s a lot of paperwork associated with it for the provider,” Feld says. “You may have to switch providers.”

To find participating broadband providers, go to Lifeline’s Companies Near Me page. The selection is likely to be limited to offerings from telephone providers since Lifeline initially covered only phone service. It still offers a $5.25 voice phone subsidy.

Meanwhile, Washington, D.C.–based Verizon supports Lifeline with fixed-wireless and Fios fiber-optic service, but competitors Comcast and Astound don’t participate.

That’s because Comcast, the largest internet provider in the U.S., offers its own income-limited plan, Internet Essentials, which runs $9.95 a month for people receiving Medicaid or SSI government benefits. Charter, the second-largest internet provider, offers a similar income-restricted option, the $25.99 Spectrum Internet Assist.

Like the ACP, Lifeline providers must offer download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and uploads of at least 3 Mbps, which is the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband but should suffice for high-definition video streaming. Participating companies can impose a data cap but must allow 1.23 terabytes of data a month, about the same limit that Comcast and some other cable providers impose on subscribers.

Once you’ve found a participating provider, “see what they offer for Lifeline and whether they will allow you to pay more than $9.25 for a higher speed or higher capacity package,” Feld says.

Applications fall short because of paperwork problems

You can apply online at and qualify automatically but expect to submit supporting documentation to complete the application. You also can download the application posted on the site and mail it with your supporting paperwork.

Note that California, Oregon and Texas have their own state Lifeline sites that, in some cases, come with a higher subsidy. Once you’ve signed up, your subsidy is applied directly to your bill.

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Despite the relief, many people who want to be Lifeline subscribers don’t follow through on their applications. Data from the Universal Service Administrative Co., the government-backed organization that administers Lifeline, shows that 34 percent of applications fail because people didn’t provide the documents requested.

However, in the third quarter of 2023, 44.8 percent of the 4.6 million applications received were automatically qualified and another 6.4 percent were approved after applicants provided documentation.

“Lifeline has been woefully undersubscribed for years,” says Matt Wood, vice president of policy and general counsel at the digital rights group Free Press in Washington. He says he would rather see Congress renew funding for the ACP and have that take Lifeline’s place: “Ultimately, it makes more sense to have one program than two.”

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