Getting Up to Speed

Broadband internet for low-income households

Today, high-speed home internet service (broadband) is virtually a necessity for everything from finding a job to doing homework. However, many low-income households are at a disadvantage because broadband has been unaffordable for them. This fact sheet explains more about broadband, including its importance, benefits, availability and pricing. It also presents special programs that offer low-income households fast home internet service at a discount.

Getting Up to Speed

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Broadband is the service that gives you access to high-speed internet. In today’s world, having access to broadband is a necessity. Unfortunately, many low-income households are not connected to the internet. This publication explains more about broadband, including its importance, benefits, availability and pricing. It also presents special programs that help low-income households get internet service.

Benefits of broadband

Having access to high-speed internet at home has many benefits, from increased communication with family and friends to the ability to find jobs and improve one’s health.

Here are just a few of the things you can do on the internet:

  • Communicate with family and friends through email, video chat and social media
  • Complete homework assignments (many assignments require the internet for research and to access student materials)
  • Search for jobs (even, in some cases, work from home, or “telecommute”)
  • Apply for assistance and services
  • Find information on topics of interest and local events
  • Read the news
  • Manage health care
  • Enroll in online banking (check balances, transfer money between accounts and deposit checks by taking a photo of them)
  • Shop online (order and pay for your purchases with a debit or credit card)
  • Watch videos on your mobile device, computer or TV
  • Upload and download large files, including video and audio

Broadband technology

There are many different types of technology that internet service providers (ISPs) can use to connect households to the internet. These include dial-up, cable, fiber and satellite via “fixed” lines, as well as wireless and Wi-Fi “mobile” technologies. Except for dial-up, all of these technologies enable a broadband (high-speed) connection.

To access the internet, you need an internet-ready device such as a smartphone, tablet or computer. Sometimes these devices can connect directly to your mobile carrier’s network for a monthly fee. Other devices can connect only to wireless internet signals (Wi-Fi) in your home, office or public places when you are near a signal. For home-based internet, you will need a modem to bring the broadband signal into your home. (Your provider may charge a monthly modem rental fee.) To create a home Wi-Fi network, where you do not need to be connected to the modem by a cord, and one or more users can access the internet at the same time, you will need to connect via a “wireless router.” Often, modems and wireless routers come together in a single device. If your modem does not have a built-in router, you will need to connect an external router to it.

The broadband technology you choose will depend on where you live (urban or rural), service offerings and price. In most areas, there are two fixed (not mobile) broadband providers—the local cable company and the local phone company. In many areas, consumers have three or more choices for mobile broadband from national wireless service providers. In most cases, you will be required to sign a contract for broadband service. Make sure you understand your contract, including any early termination fees for switching service before your contract expires.

Mobile technology vs fixed broadband

When the internet became widely available to households and businesses in the late 1990s, access was provided only by “dial-up” service, which was slow to “load” webpages and download files. Broadband internet access sold today is very fast by comparison, and users have come to expect speedy connections that allow them to do the many tasks that are now common on the internet, from banking and school homework to watching online video and keeping in touch with family.

Mobile broadband, usually accessed on a smartphone or tablet computer, can vary in availability and reliability because it is relayed by local cell phone towers, and in some areas, transmission towers are few and far between. “Fixed” broadband, delivered through a direct connection from the provider’s network into the home, is often more reliable. Mobile broadband is usually device specific, while “fixed” broadband allows all the members of your household to connect their internet-enabled devices (even smartphones) if you have a Wi-Fi router. However, many people like the freedom of mobile broadband, which allows you to access the internet anywhere your provider offers services.

Mobile (not home-based) broadband plans are sold by amounts of access, measured in megabytes (MB) or, in larger allowances, gigabytes (GB) or terabytes (TB), of “data.” Playing (“streaming”) video or music for even a few hours a day can quickly use up your mobile data allowance.

When you use more data than your plan offers, you will be warned before you reach your limit so that you can avoid being charged more money for additional data. (Whenever possible, set your phone to Wi-Fi to allow you to save your mobile data allowance for when Wi-Fi isn’t available.)

Mobile internet plans typically require a credit check and they may require you to lock into a contract. If you end the contract early, you typically must pay an “early termination fee” of $100 to $200 or more.

Broadband pricing

Broadband service fees are charged monthly, which means you pay a fixed rate for your connection. With home-based access, most customers can use the internet as often as they like, for as long as they like (though very heavy users could exceed a plan’s data allowance and be charged an additional fee).

Home-based internet is sold by speed, which usually is measured in Mbps (megabits per second). You will pay more for faster speeds. A broadband connection has two speeds: “download” and “upload.” When you are surfing the internet, you are downloading information from the web; when you are sending email or posting a photo, you are uploading to the web. Download speeds tend to be faster than upload speeds.

Your plan is priced by the “maximum” speed it can reach; however, this can vary. Many “speed test” websites exist to help you measure and track your broadband speed.

You can buy “prepaid” smartphones and data. Prepaid plans require no credit check and no contract. When you have used up all the data you paid for, you will have to purchase more if you need more access to the internet. Prepaid mobile internet can be a good way to control costs, however most plans require you to provide a debit or credit card to automatically “re-up” your plan at regular intervals, such as monthly.

Low-cost broadband programs

In an effort to close the “digital divide,” telecommunications companies, nonprofits and the federal government offer programs that make high-speed internet more affordable for low-income households.

Following are programs providing discounted internet. It is necessary to apply for these services, and eligibility requirements vary. (Not all are available in all parts of the U.S.)

Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB). You may qualify for the FCC’s temporary EBB if you:

  • Currently receive a Lifeline benefit (see next program listing) (Lifeline subscribers qualify for the EBB automatically, but must opt in to the EBB with their existing provider or enroll with another participating broadband provider), or
  • Have an income that is at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines, or
  • Have a household member (such as yourself, your spouse, or your child or dependent) who receives benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Federal Public Housing Assistance, Supplemental Security Income, the Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit, or certain Tribal Programs, or
  • Experienced a substantial loss of income since Feb. 29, 2020, due to job loss or furlough and had a total household income in 2020 at or below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers, or
  • Received a federal Pell Grant in the current award year, or
  • Were approved for 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, or
  • Meet the eligibility criteria for a participating provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 program, and that provider received FCC approval for its eligibility verification process.

The program provides a benefit of $50 per month ($75 for residents of Tribal Lands), paid directly by the program to the service provider, resulting in a lower bill for you. 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 they contribute more than $10 but less than $50 toward the purchase price. Use the online Lifeline National Verifier to find out if you are eligible and to apply. The program will end when the funding runs out or six months after the government declares an end to the COVID-19 crisis, whichever comes first.

Federal Lifeline. You may qualify for federal Lifeline if you:

  • Are at or below 135% of the federal poverty level for your household size and state, or you or someone in your household receives SNAP, SSI or benefits from one of the other qualifying assistance programs.

You can receive only one Lifeline subsidy per household, for either phone (landline or wireless) or internet service (home broadband or wireless/data). The discount of up to $5.25 for voice-only service will end on Dec. 1, 2021. The monthly discount for home broadband or wireless/data service is $9.25 (up to $34.25 for customers who live on Tribal Lands and participate in qualifying programs). The final cost to you depends on which carrier, service type and plan you choose. Use the Lifeline National Verifier application system to create an account and see if you qualify, or call 800-234-9473 for assistance. You can find a service provider that participates in Lifeline by using the online search tool.

Access from AT&T. You may qualify for Access from AT&T if you:

  • Have at least one resident in your household who participates in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). (California households also qualify if a resident receives Supplemental Security Income [SSI].) (Note: In response to the COVID-19 crisis, AT&T is temporarily extending eligibility to households with annual income of up to 135% of the federal poverty guidelines [check the online table near the end of the program webpage for income limits] or with at least one child in the National School Lunch or Head Start programs.)
  • Live in AT&T’s 21-state service area, where it offers wireline home internet service and at least one of the five speed tiers offered under the program.
  • Do not have outstanding debt for AT&T’s fixed internet service within the last six months or outstanding debt incurred under Access from AT&T.

Speeds of between 768 Kbps and 10 Mbps are available; qualifying households receive the fastest available tier. Service providing 5 Mbps or more will cost $10 a month, and service providing 3 Mbps or less will cost $5 a month. There is no deposit or contract required, and there are no installation or internet equipment fees. In-home Wi-Fi is included, as is access to the national AT&T Wi-Fi hotspot network.

Internet Essentials from Comcast. You may qualify for Internet Essentials from Comcast if you:

  • Participate in any one of a dozen public assistance programs, including Medicaid, HUD/Section 8, National School Lunch Program (NSLP), Head Start, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Tribal TANF, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Pell Grant, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), and Veterans Administration (VA) pension.
  • Live in an area where Comcast internet service is available.
  • Have not subscribed to Comcast internet within the last 90 days.
  • Do not have outstanding debt to Comcast that is less than one year old.

Internet Essentials from Comcast provides low-cost internet service at speeds of up to 50 Mbps downstream and 5 Mbps upstream for $9.95 a month with in-home Wi-Fi included, as well as access to the Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspot network, the option to purchase an internet-ready computer for $149.99, and access to free digital literacy training that’s available in person, online or in print.

Internet First. You may qualify for Internet First if you:

  • Participate in any one of a dozen public assistance programs, including Medicaid, HUD/Section 8, Unemployment, National School Lunch Program (NSLP), Head Start, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Tribal TANF, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), Pell Grant, WIC (Women, Infants, and Children), and Veterans Administration (VA) pension.
  • Live in an area where RCN, Grande or Wave service is available.
  • Have not subscribed to RCN, Grande or Wave services within the 60 days immediately prior to applying for the Internet First program.

Qualifying households can get 50 Mbps speed for $9.95 per month, plus taxes. There are no contracts, no credit check, and no installation or activation fees. (Check if the company is offering its 60-days-free promotion for new customers at the time you apply.) If you wish to continue receiving the Internet First offer after the first year, you must reapply annually. The same program eligibility rules will apply. The monthly rate is subject to increase for each subsequent one-year period, by no more than $10 per month.

Spectrum Internet Assist. You may qualify for Spectrum Internet Assist if you:

  • Have in your household at least one child who receives reduced or free lunch through the National School Lunch Program or is a recipient of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the NSLP, and/or a senior (65 and over) who receives SSI.
  • Have not subscribed to a Charter broadband plan in the 30 days prior to enrollment.
  • Have no outstanding debt to Charter and no unreturned equipment.

Qualifying households get up to 30 Mbps downstream, which is enough to power multiple devices simultaneously, and 4 Mbps upstream for $17.99 per month, plus taxes and fees. An internet modem is included; you have the option to add an in-home Wi-Fi router for $5 more per month (or you can purchase your own).

EveryoneOn. You may qualify for EveryoneOn’s Connect2Compete (C2C) program, offered through a partnership with cable companies, including Cox Communications and Mediacom, if you:

  • Have at least one student in grades K-12 living in the household.
  • Have at least one member of the household participating in the National School Lunch Program (Mediacom and Cox), or have a household member participating in SNAP, TANF or public housing (Cox).
  • Have not subscribed to internet service from Cox or Mediacom within the last 90 days and don’t have any outstanding Cox or Mediacom bills or unreturned equipment.

Both the Cox and Mediacom Connect2Compete programs provide internet service (Wi-Fi modem included) for $9.95 per month (plus taxes) at speeds up to 25 Mbps (Mediacom) or 50 Mbps (Cox). There are no deposits, installation fees or contracts.

PCs for People: You may qualify for PCs for People’s internet plan if you:

Qualifying households receive internet access (unlimited data at 4G LTE speeds) for as low as $15 per month. Because all plans are prepaid, there is no credit check. New customers, regardless of plan length, are required to purchase a wireless LTE modem through the program, which costs $80.

Staying safe online

When you and your family are using the internet, be aware that you could be exposed to scams.

Scammers use email, surveys, online ads, pop-up boxes and search results to trick you into sending them money or personal information. Here are some resources to help you stay safe online:

Consumer Action offers many free, multilingual brochures and guides that alert you to online risks and offer ways to protect your privacy on the internet.

Family Online Safety Institute offers many resources to make the online world safer for children and families. is the federal government’s website to help you be safe, secure and responsible online.

Published / Reviewed Date

Reviewed: July 12, 2021

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Getting Up to Speed
File Name: Getting_Up_to_Speed_2021_EN_v1.2.pdf
File Size: 2.32MB


Comcast NBCUniversal


Consumer Action created this brochure with funding from Comcast NBCUniversal.

A series of companion flyers offering more detail on the low-income internet plans mentioned in this guide are available online.

Filed Under

Internet   ♦   Telecom   ♦  


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