Can you imagine a world without the internet? Probably not. But you may be surprised to learn that internet availability in the home is actually not affordable for many low-income Americans. Fortunately, there are some government subsidized options for low income internet.
- 7 Programs That Provide Low Income Internet
- Why Is Low Income Internet Important?
- 7 Programs That Provide Low Income Internet
- The Importance of Low Income Internet
7 Programs That Provide Low Income Internet
- Internet Essentials (Comcast)
- Spectrum Internet Assist
- Internet Basics (CenturyLink)
- Access (AT&T)
- Connect2Compete (Cox)
As of 2020, the average internet bill for consumers was around $60. That may not seem like a lot, but add to that the $10-$15 cost of renting a modem and router from the internet service provider, and you’re looking at a potential expense of $900. For some families on a tight budget, such as a one-income home on Federal minimum wage, that might be 75% of an entire month’s paycheck. That’s an expense a low income household can simply not afford—or one that they can afford at great sacrifice.
Why Is Low Income Internet Important?
You might ask: Is it really that important to have access to social media, online gaming, and streaming video services? The answer to those questions might be debatable, but there’s not much to debate around the vital services that the internet can provide: access to job boards for those seeking better employment, educational resources for students who need to keep up with their peers, and access to websites and applications for Social Services such as SNAP, Medicaid, and SSI which low income families might need. The internet today is more than a given luxury: It’s a necessity.
Thankfully, the government has recognized the importance of affordable internet for every qualifying household living below the federal poverty guideline. The push to provide broadband to every low income family is part of a longstanding effort to keep America connected. It goes back all the way to the formation of the Lifeline Assistance program, which was set up to subsidize landline usage when American consumers were still using home phones to do most of their communicating.
Today, most Americans use the internet for communicating via email or social media messaging. They use it for education, employment, health, and entertainment. Recognizing the value of broadband services, the FCC has worked with several telecommunications companies to provide inexpensive and sometimes even free internet service options.
7 Programs That Provide Low Income Internet
The Lifeline Assistance program provides subsidized broadband service to low income consumers whose household income falls within 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or who can demonstrate participation in a benefits program like SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, Veterans Benefits, or others. These plans vary by state and provider, but most consumers tend to use the Lifeline Program to obtain a free cell phone (popularly called Obama Phone) which sometimes does come with internet access.
Consumers can also opt to sign up for a broadband plan instead, and in fact, the voice only plan options will probably be phased out by the end of 2021. There is a limit of one Lifeline Service Plan per economically independent household, but while that might pose some difficulty in terms of a smartphone, it’s not an unreasonable arrangement in terms of home-based internet service.
Depending on what a family uses the internet for, the Lifeline benefit of a free phone with internet might be sufficient, but most individuals, especially families with kids in school, will want to make sure that the Lifeline plans in their area can facilitate internet usage on a computer, which offers more functionalities for students and working adults (or adults seeking work).
2. Internet Essentials (Comcast)
Comcast is America’s largest cable provider. In some locations, they have developed a less than stellar perception among paying consumers, but their subsidized internet plan—The Internet Essentials Program from Comcast—is actually quite an incredible deal.
Qualifying low income consumers can score 15 Mbps of internet, which is more than sufficient for basic internet tasks (checking email, reading articles, and some light gaming or streaming). Better yet, it will only cost internet essentials customers $9.95 per month, which is more than 80% less expensive than typical ISP plans.
It gets better: Internet Essentials subscribers can also get a subsidized laptop or desktop with Microsoft Office for $149. However, this program is in the main geared toward low income families with children; the main requirement for eligibility is having at least one child who themselves is eligible for the National School Lunch Program. You can get Internet Essentials if you receive housing assistance like Public Housing, Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8 Vouchers) or Multifamily Assistance. There are pilot programs in select areas to bring Internet Essentials to seniors and community college students.
3. Spectrum Internet Assist
Spectrum is another Internet Service Provider with a low cost plan for households with children and limited financial means. If your household has a child who participates in the National School Lunch Program or the Community Eligibility Provision (essentially an addition to the NSLP that provides students with breakfast as well) it will qualify for an internet service plan of 30 Mbps for $17.99 per month.
This is twice the speed of the Comcast Internet Essentials program, so it’s a little bit better for streaming, gaming, and multiple people using the internet at once. Wifi is $5 extra per month. Spectrum is available for applicants over 65 years of age who are receiving Supplemental Security Income, but Social Security retirement benefits do not qualify senior subscribers for Spectrum.
4. Internet Basics (CenturyLink)
Century Link’s Internet Basics ISP plan is only available to subscribers in Oregon, Washington, and Tennessee, so if you don’t live in the Pacific Northwest or The Volunteer State, you’ll have to look for another ISP. But for those low income individuals with eligibility, Internet Basics provides high speed DSL for $14.99 per month, but at a fairly low 1.5 Mbps. However, this is generally more than sufficient for one internet user to perform basic tasks and even some light gaming.
Internet Basics also offers subscribers a subsidized computer for $150 and free computer classes on how to use it. It’s a little bit easier to qualify for Internet Basics because you don’t need to have a child in the NSLP. In fact, CenturyLink uses the same eligibility requirements as the Lifeline Program: either 135% of the Federal Poverty Line or participation in a government assistance program like SNAP, Medicaid, SSI, or Veterans Benefits.
5. Access (AT&T)
The AT&T Access program is available for low income households with at least one member participating in the SNAP program. This ISP provides 10 Mbps at a rate of $10 per month. Unfortunately, the Access program will be going away and it will stop taking new applications as of April 2020.
The real story behind AT&T’s low income internet offering is that the Federal Government made AT&T offer this plan in return for their $67+ billion acquisition of cable giant DirectTV (which itself was compelled to offer Internet Basics in return for CenturyLink’s acquisition of Qwest Communications). That said, since AT&T has fulfilled their end of the bargain they are unfortunately not interested in continuing to offer low income subsidized internet. However, they still offer some of the most inexpensive consumer facing ISP deals on the market, so that might be an alternative for cheap internet.
6. Connect2Compete (Cox)
The Connect2Compete program’s very name suggests what the program is all about: connecting students to the internet to help them keep up with their peers. Kids today use the internet for learning and research, and computers for writing their papers. They may also use email to communicate with teachers or check the specifics of their homework assignments online. If you have a child enrolled in school anywhere between Kindergarten and 12th grade, and your household participates in SNAP, NSLP, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), or Public Housing, you can get low cost internet with download speeds of 25 Mbps for just $9.95 per month.
If you don’t qualify for Connect2Compete, you can still get a low cost internet plan from Cox for less than $30 monthly. The impact of the Connect2Compete program is substantial. According to Cox, 91% of parents believe that internet access has helped their children get a leg up for high school graduation and 95% feel that it has made communicating with their child’s school easier. Cox also works with PCsForPeople to provide low income households with hardware like a refurbished laptop or desktop.
Connect All is a high speed internet service for low income Americans that operates a little differently than some of the other low cost internet service options listed above. Qualifying customers in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. can get 4G LTE with no data limitations, data overages, or throttling. Throttling is an intentional slowdown of internet connection to minimize bandwidth congestion and regulate network traffic.
Generally speaking, a low income family will be able to connect as many as 5-10 devices to the wifi hotspot. And there’s the catch, though it ends up being a pretty sweet deal. ConnectAll has an upfront cost to purchase the wifi hotspot, CoopPad Surf for $110. But once you purchase that hardware, you’ll have incredible wireless broadband internet for just $11.95 per month after that.
It’s certainly not free internet, but if you consider the cost of the hotspot and factor it into your first year of usage, you’re really just paying around $21 per month for incredible wireless internet. Considering that some free internet service plans already cost $14.99 and charge $5 for wireless, it’s around the same price for great internet speeds. A new customer needs to either reside in a low income zip code, have a total income of less than $50 per year (verified by a paystub) currently be an enrolled student, receive school lunches, or show participation in public assistance programs like supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP).
The Importance of Low Income Internet
As you can see, there are several Internet Service Providers that can connect low income households with low cost internet (and there are dozens of others not listed here, including the dozens of Lifeline Program vendors). You may have noticed that many of these low income internet options are geared toward families with children. This is because one of the biggest reasons for these subsidized internet programs is to close opportunity gaps that develop because of a digital divide facing America today.
One out of three households with children do not have high speed internet at home, which is necessary for simple online functions like research, writing, and sending emails. As many as 25% of teens cannot complete their homework assignments because they lack reliable internet.
These students may go on to have a harder time finishing school, which in turn creates educational deficiencies and only continues a cycle of poverty. If a high speed internet plan for $10-$15 per month is the only thing standing between failure and success for the next generation, then these low income internet service providers are definitely empowering low income households.