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The internet isn’t optional in the modern world. Unfortunately, there’s a digital divide in the United States and millions of households lack access to a fast and reliable connection. The COVID-19 pandemic both illuminated and exacerbated the problem, which has prompted the recently reshuffled Federal Communications Commission to take more proactive steps toward universal access. The latest initiative is called the Emergency Broadband Benefit and it provides discounted access as well as a stipend to spend on connected devices for low-income people.

What is the Emergency Broadband Benefit?

Those who qualify for the program (more on the qualification requirements below), are entitled to a $50 monthly reduction in the cost of their broadband access. That discount goes up to $75 monthly for people living on specific tribal land. The program also grants qualified individuals up to $100 as a one-time assistance to buy a laptop, desktop, or tablet computer in order to get connected. 

[Related: The FCC wants to know how fast your internet really is]

Right now, “broadband” still refers to the increasingly archaic FCC definition of the term, which only requires 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. It has been that way since 2015, but a group of Senators is hoping to upgrade those numbers to accommodate modern internet usage, which includes bandwidth-hungry activities such as remote work, home schooling, and telemedicine. 

Who qualifies for the Emergency Broadband Benefit?

The pool of recipients covers a fairly wide range of people. Here are the basic requirements outlined by the FCC: 

  • Has an income that is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines or participates in certain assistance programs, such as SNAP, Medicaid, or Lifeline;
  • Approved to receive 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;
  • Received a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year;
  • Experienced a substantial loss of income due to job loss or furlough since February 29, 2020 and the household had a total income in 2020 at or below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers; or
  • Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 program.

The site also lays out a more comprehensive list of qualifications on this page.

How to apply

The FCC has laid out three methods for applying for the program. If you already have service or know which local provider offers broadband in your area, you can contact them directly. Some providers already have programs in place specifically to provide services for low-income people. Spectrum, for instance, offers a reduced rate 30 Mbps connection with no data caps or contracts. That program, however, only applies to new customers who meet the criteria. The FCC program will help those who already have service and it expands the subject pool considerably. 

Those who have access to the web in some way can visit this site in order to complete the necessary steps to apply. Of course, there are also non-connected ways to do so. Applicants can call 833-511-0311 to request a physical application that they can return by mail. 

What’s coming next?

The current Emergency Broadband Benefit is set to hand out roughly $3.2 billion in assistance, but it could be extended if circumstances make it necessary. 

Since the 2020 elections, the FCC has seemingly stepped up its efforts to combat the digital divide. The organization has recently started to encourage people to use its internet speed test utility in order to get a more complete picture of the broadband landscape around the country.

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