Lower-income Americans now have more options for free high-speed Internet access, including at least eight providers serving Southern California, the White House announced Monday.
The federal government launched the Affordable Connectivity Program at the end of last year to provide $30 per month in grants to households whose incomes do not exceed twice the federal poverty level. But that subsidy was less than the amount many ISPs charged for a fast connection fast enough to support an entire family of active users.
On Monday, the White House revealed that 20 broadband providers across the country, including five of the largest cable television and telephone companies, had agreed to provide “fast enough” connections for no more than $30 a month to eligible homes. Eight serve communities in Southern California: AT&T, Comcast, Cox, Frontier, Mediacom, Spectrum, Starry and Verizon.
As part of the agreement, the White House said, Spectrum — which serves much of LA County — has doubled the bandwidth of its $30-per-month offering from 50 to 100 megabits per second for qualified households. And Verizon slashed the price of its 200Mbps wired offering from $40 to $30 per month.
Many other California ISPs participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program, including some like TruConnect that offer mobile broadband services. The only ones highlighted by the White House were those offering free connections with 100 Mbps downloads to eligible households.
Eliminating the cost of a broadband connection, however, only removes one of the barriers to wider Internet adoption. Sunne Wright McPeak, head of the California Emerging Technology Fund, said other hurdles include the need for a smart device and the know-how needed to use it.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that most people who qualify for grants are not aware of it or are not interested in it. For example, nearly half of Los Angeles County households have incomes low enough to qualify for the federal grant, McPeak said, but less than a quarter of that group has applied. And it can be hard to get to the rest; they probably won’t see a broadband provider’s online advertisements touting, for example, the subsidies.
The White House said Monday it is trying to raise the profile of the program by letting federal safety net agencies tell participants about it and by partnering with the outreach efforts of public interest groups. The California legislature is also considering a bill (AB2751) requires broadband providers seeking to do business with the state to provide affordable Internet connections and advertise to lower-income households.
This way you know whether you qualify for the subsidies and which broadband providers offer them.
Am I eligible and how do I apply?
The income limit is 200% of the federal poverty level, which is higher for larger households. For a single person, the threshold is $27,180 per year. For a family of four, it’s $55,500.
But there’s an easier way to check your eligibility: You qualify for the program if someone in your household is enrolled in at least one of 10 types of safety net programs, including food stamps, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, Pell Scholarships and federal public housing subsidies† Recipients of select Tribal benefit programs are also eligible, and Tribal land grants are higher: $75 per month.
To see if you qualify or to apply, visit the “Internet” webpage, which can guide you through the process. A mail-in application is also available on the Get website; it can also be found on the Affordable Connectivity Programs how to apply page† However, all those resources require internet access and a computer, tablet or smartphone.
If you have questions about how to apply but do not have Internet access, call the program’s help center toll-free: (877) 384-2575.
Once your application has been approved, the grants will flow directly to the participating broadband provider of your choice. To find one in your area, check out the program list, which you can search by zip code or city. The list includes more than 90 participating carriers in the Los Angeles area, although many of those are companies that resell services on one of the major wireless networks.
If you already have internet access, your broadband provider may have its own grant application process. You should start by checking with your ISP.
What services are available?
With the subsidies, you either pay for a landline to your home or a mobile broadband connection with your smartphone. You’ll probably get more bandwidth from a wired connection — wireless carriers typically apply much lower limits on how much data you can use per month.
The federal program also includes a $100 discount on cheap laptops and tablets, but not many broadband providers offer the device subsidies. The one exception among the state’s largest cable television and telephone companies is Cox, which serves Santa Barbara and much of Orange and San Diego counties†
There is another $10 per month federal grant called Lifeline that businesses in most states can combine with the Affordable Connectivity Program to fund services for eligible low-income households. Meanwhile, California has its own Lifeline grant that adds about $15.50 to federal Lifeline aid.
But Matt Johnson, chief executive of TruConnect, said California is the only state that won’t let wireless companies bundle money from the Lifeline and Affordable Connectivity programs into one enhanced offering for customers. Cable TV and landline companies can do that, he said — a point the California Public Utilities Commission is contesting — but for wireless customers, it’s one or the other. As a result, he said, TruConnect cannot provide as much bandwidth to eligible households in California as it does in other states.
Terrie D. Prosper, a spokesperson for the CPUC, said in an email that wireless and wired broadband providers currently receive the same grant amount, and none of them combine grants from Lifeline and Affordable Connectivity Program. The committee is reviewing a staff proposal to change that policy, she said.
How many people still need broadband?
A survey last year by USC and the California Emerging Technology Fund found that 91% of Californians surveyed had access to the Internet. But the survey also found that more than a quarter of low-income Californians surveyed had no internet (16%) or only a data plan on their smartphone (10%).
The lack of a high-speed connection at home makes it significantly more difficult to work, study or receive medical care remotely, the study authors said. In other words, it puts low-income households at a greater disadvantage than they already have.
One benefit of the White House’s latest effort, McPeak said, is that it will increase access to low-income households by credible authorities. Such efforts can yield significant results, she said; when her group and LA County joined an effort to spread the word about broadband subsidies late last year, the county’s enrollment surged 43% in about three weeks†
But many of these families still need reliable sources to convince them and help them get online, McPeak said. That requires funding for community groups that can overcome language and cultural barriers to adoption and improve digital literacy, she said.
How long do the subsidies last?
Unlike its predecessor, the now defunct Broadband emergency fund, the Affordable Connectivity Program has no expiration date. But Congress can choose to cut funding at any time, which is one of the reasons the California Emerging Technology Fund is pushing AB 2751, which would keep a version of the program alive if the FBI ever abandoned it. .