What Are the Best Low Income Internet Options?

There are multiple programs that can assist individuals in getting quality home broadband Internet. In addition to ongoing and temporary government programs, many Internet providers offer a low-income option, as well as bare-bones plans that do not require a qualifications process. School districts, public libraries and charities may also offer onsite connectivity.

Home Internet can be expensive, and some individuals and families find themselves struggling to pay their Internet bill each month. If this describes your household, you may be surprised to learn that there are programs that can help you get affordable Internet for your family. In addition, there are some strategies that you can apply to significantly reduce how much you pay for Internet each month.

Government Programs

Federal, state, and local governments offer options for Internet connectivity. If you do apply for these programs, keep in mind that you will be required to provide documentation of your income, which may include evidence that you qualify for other government assistance programs, such as food stamps (SNAP), Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF), or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Federal Low-Income Internet Programs

Lifeline: The federal Lifeline program provides participants with discounts on either phone or broadband Internet service (you can't claim a discount on both types of service). Qualifications vary by state, but the general guidance is that you have a household income 135% or below the Federal Poverty Guideline.

Emergency Broadband Benefit: This is a temporary program that provides significant discounts on Broadband Internet services, as well as laptop computers or mobile tablets, during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The benefits will see it when funds run out or six months after the pandemic has ended. There are several ways to financially qualify for this program, including being able to prove low income, or showing that your income has dropped significantly due to COVID-19.

Tribal Lands

If you live on tribal lands, you may be entitled to even greater discounts on Internet service than what the standard Lifeline and Emergency Broadband Benefit programs offer. When applying to these programs, be sure to indicate that you are living on tribal lands.

State and Municipal Programs

Some states, towns and cities offer programs that can help low-income families and individuals gain access to the Internet. For example, the Chicago public school system provides free Internet to the homes of low-income students. State and local governments may also offer Wi-Fi hotspots around the city that anyone can use.

Internet Provider Programs

Many Internet providers have special programs for low-income individuals and households. These programs offer slower, but often quite adequate, speeds and bandwidth add extremely low prices (often between $10-20 per month).

Qualifying for these programs depends on several factors, including the state in which you live and the policies of the Internet providers. Typical qualifiers include:

  • Low household income.
  • Participating in government assistance programs such as SSI, TANF, or SNAP
  • Being 65 or older and also being able to prove that you have low household income
  • Children in the household who are primary, secondary, or college students.
  • Participation in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP)
  • US military veteran who participates in state or federal public assistance programs

Tip: Contact your current provider or, if you don't have one, the providers in your area and ask about low-income options.

Altice Advantage: Up to 30 Mbps speeds, free router & modem, unlimited data and a discount on installation.

Access from AT&T: Free installation, free in-home Wi-Fi, no deposit, speeds up to 25 Mbps.

Spectrum Internet® Assist: Free modem, 30 Mbps speeds, no caps on data, no contracts, and Wi-Fi for an additional $5 per month.

Cox & Mediacom Connect2Compete: 50/3 Mbps, free wifi modem rental, access to Cox Wi-Fi hotspots, online safety software, computer literacy training.

Internet First: Up to 50 Mbps, no fees or extra charges.

Xfinity/Comcast Internet Essentials: 50/5 Mbps Internet service, no equipment rental or activation fees, free Internet classes, free in-home Wi-Fi, access to Xfinity Wi-Fi hotspots.

Applying to Programs

Because these programs are income-qualified, and may also be available on the basis of age group, student status or being a military veteran, you can expect to be able to prove that you qualify for the special rates provided by your Internet provider. In most cases, the Internet provider provides clear guidelines for qualification as well as the kind of documentation that is needed to apply.

You may be expected to scan or take photos of your documentation and upload them directly via the Internet provider's website. Obviously, this could be a problem if you don't have access to the Internet. In such cases, you may be able to mail in a paper application along with your documentation.

Required documentation may include the following:

  • Proof of identity
  • Proof of age (including minor children)
  • Proof of school enrollment
  • Proof of participation in a government assistance program
  • Proof of veteran status

If you are applying online, it's a good idea to carefully review all of the materials provided online before gathering your documents, scanning or photographing them and then uploading them to the provider's website.

Other Internet Options

If you don't qualify for government nor company-supported low-income plans, you still have options for accessing the Internet:

Bare-bones Internet plans: Many Internet providers offer prepaid and bare-bones plans that offer a basic level of broadband connectivity with few or no fees, no contracts and the ability to top off service as needed. Keep in mind, however, that if you already have a plan through your current provider, it can be difficult to negotiate a downgrade. You may have to spend some time persuading a customer service representative that the downgrade is necessary. Another option is to switch to another provider in your area, assuming that your area is served by multiple providers.

Lifeline smartphone mobile hotspot tethering: If you opt to use your lifeline benefit for phone service, rather than Internet service, you can use your provided smartphone to access the Internet. Obviously, you can do this directly from your phone, or you can use your phone as a mobile hotspot and connect through a desktop or laptop computer, as well as a tablet. While the amount of data that you can use may be very limited on your Lifeline smartphone plan, you may find that it is enough for basic tasks such as accessing email and paying bills online.

Public Wi-Fi networks: Public libraries, government buildings, and many private companies that cater to the public, such as coffee shops or restaurants offer free Wi-Fi. The problem with these services is that your connection is open and insecure, making you vulnerable to being hacked and your information being stolen.

If you must rely on public Wi-Fi networks, consider getting a VPN. A VPN provides a strong level of security while using public and otherwise unfamiliar networks. The cost of VPN service is often significantly less than the cost of standard Internet plans, although the cheapest rates are for those who can afford to pre-pay for months or even years in advance. Still, a VPN may be a good idea if you rely on public networks and can't afford home Internet service.

Employment centers and training programs: Some government and private organizations that provide job training and employment assistance may offer free Wi-Fi connections at their locations. While you may be expected to use this Internet solely for job search services, it is an option that may be of significant assistance if you relying on the Internet for your job search.

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