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New Federal Program Promises Cheaper Internet Bills, But You Need To Act Fast

laptop computer

Eligible households will get up to $50 per month for internet service, and the program also offers a $100 discount on a laptop, desktop computer or tablet.

Eligible households can apply for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, but the program ends once it runs out of money.

Charter, Frontier, and WOW! are participating.

The program is open to people with a household income up to 135% of federal poverty guidelines (for a family of four, that’s about $36,000 a year). It’s also available to people who suffered “substantial loss of income” during the pandemic.

Recipients of Medicaid, SNAP, Pell Grants, and free or reduced-priced school lunches can sign up, too.

Here is a full list of who can qualify.

Eligible households will get up to $50 per month for internet service. People living on tribal lands will receive $75 per month. The program also offers a $100 discount on a laptop, desktop computer or tablet.

To sign up, you first must apply with the Universal Service Administrative Company.The agency also runs the federal government’s Lifeline subsided phone program (Lifeline users can apply for the broadband benefit).

If USAC determines you’re eligible, you must then contact your internet service provider to use the credit. In the Tampa Bay region Charter, Frontier, and WOW! are all participating.

“What we found in COVID was affordability in urban settings was one of the biggest problems, says Alison Barlow, executive director of Digital Inclusion St. Pete, which has worked to connect people during the pandemic. “There were families and individuals who couldn't sustain an ongoing monthly internet bill.”

The Washington Post reportssome internet providers — including Charter — are pushing customers onto more expensive internet plans, diluting the value of the benefit. A Charter spokesman told the Post “an extremely small number” of its customers on “legacy” plans are being forced to switch.

Barlow says the application process can be confusing and intimidating. Her organization is looking to hire someone to help people sign up.

“There's confusion about which plans by the providers are eligible," Barlow said. "So, what you don't want to do is agree to a plan that's much more significant in costs thinking, ‘Well, I'm gonna get $50 covered, So I'll be OK.’”

Congress set aside $3.2 billion for the Emergency Broadband Benefit in a COVID relief bill that former President Trump signed into law late last year. Once funding is gone, the program ends.

“Depending on how popular it is, it could be out of money in under six months,” says Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at Public Knowledge, an advocacy group that supports open internet access.

Leventoff says the broadband benefit could open the door to congressional action on internet pricing, including a permanent subsidy for people with low incomes.

"Even if there is some level of competition, which brings down prices, or regulation that brings down prices, there might still be groups of people that just can't afford it,” she said.

President Biden’s American Jobs Plan sets aside $100 billion for internet infrastructure and calls for price reductions and transparency. Major telecommunications companies are pushing back on the plan.

Bradley George was a Morning Edition host and reporter at WUSF until March 2022.