The pandemic proved how much we rely on the internet for so many aspects of daily life. A reliable internet connection makes it possible to work, educate the kids, and receive healthcare from the safety of our homes.

Unfortunately, many American families struggle to afford this vital service.

Starting today, the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will provide financial assistance to families who need help paying for internet access or buying a computer. Congress gave the FCC $3.2 billion to create this program which will help tens of millions of American families.

“No one should have to choose between paying their internet bill or paying to put food on the table,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, the commission’s acting chairwoman. “With the help of the Emergency Broadband Benefit, we have a new way for households to access virtual learning, of patients to connect to telehealth providers, and for those struggling in this pandemic to learn new online skills and seek their next job.”

Who Qualifies and for How Much?

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program provides discounts on eligible broadband service of up to $50 a month, or up to $75 a month on qualifying tribal lands. You can find out which tribal lands are eligible at this website.

The new program also offers a one-time reimbursement of up to $100 for a laptop, tablet, or desktop computer purchased from a participating provider. The family must make a downpayment of between $10 and $50 at the time of purchase, and arrange payment for the outstanding balance.

Note: You don’t get any of this money; it goes directly to the provider who then lowers your bill.

A household is eligible for the program if one member of the family meets one of the following criteria:

  • Has an income at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, or participates in certain assistance programs, such as SNAP, Medicaid, or FCC’s Lifeline assistance
  • Receives benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program, or the school breakfast program, including through the USDA Community Eligibility Provision in the 2019-2020 or 2020-2021 school year;
  • Received a Pell Grant for college during the current award year;
  • Experienced a substantial loss of income due to job loss or furlough since February 29, 2020, and the household had a total income below $99,000 (single filers) or $198,000 (joint filers) in 2020;
  • Meets the eligibility requirements for a participating provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 program.

How Do I Enroll?

The FCC says more than 800 broadband providers (both landline and wireless) have signed-up for program, including AT&T, Comcast, Dish Wireless, Frontier, T-Mobile, and US Cellular.

A list of approved providers by state is on the FCC website. You can enroll through one of them, or visit GetEmergencyBroadband.org. The benefit is available to new, former or existing customers.

This is a temporary program that will end when the funds are exhausted, or six months after the federal government declares an end to the pandemic, whichever comes first.

An FCC Consumer FAQ provides further details about the program.

Another Money-Saving Option

If you don’t qualify for the government subsidy, contact your internet service provider and ask if there’s a way to lower your bill. You’d be surprised at how often it works.

“When it comes to TV or bundled TV/internet service, it always pays to haggle,” said Jim Willcox, senior electronics editor at Consumer Reports. “In our latest survey, about two-thirds of those who tried to negotiate for a better price succeeded, getting either a lower price, an extension of their promotional pricing, or higher internet speeds.”

I’ve had more success haggling for deals at the retail store than on the phone. I recently qualified for a two-year promotional rate that lowered my cable/internet bill by $40 a month. I did have to sign a two-year contract, but I was willing to do that for the discount.

Another option: If you rent your router from your cable company, consider buying one. That could save you up to $120 a year. Consumer Reports' tests show you can find a good model for between $60 and $85, so the payback is less than 12 months.

More Info from Checkbook: Buying Computers and Devices

 




Contributing editor Herb Weisbaum (“The ConsumerMan”) is an Emmy award-winning broadcaster and one of America's top consumer experts. He is also the consumer reporter for KOMO radio in Seattle. You can also find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at ConsumerMan.com.