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Struggling to afford broadband at home? There's a $50 monthly benefit you should know about

Americans who qualify can use the Emergency Broadband Benefit to knock $50 off their internet bill each month.

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Remote learning, telehealth, online socializing and more pandemic-era norms have pushed our internet usage to the max.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

In the age of COVID-19, a reliable home internet connection is borderline essential, but broadband isn't always easy for Americans to afford. If struggles like those sound familiar -- or if you lost your job or income during the past year -- there's a government subsidy program called the Emergency Broadband Benefit that might help. Those who qualify can sign up now to receive $50 off their monthly internet bill, among other benefits.

Hundreds of broadband providers have committed to participating in the Federal Communications Commission's program, including AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter Spectrum, Comcast Xfinity, T-Mobile and Verizon, so there's a good chance it's available in your area. You'll also find eligible prepaid plans from AT&T and Cricket Wireless, as well as discounted devices at Walmart. Here's how to tell if you qualify, how you can enroll and everything else you should know.

Step 1: Determine your eligibility

The Emergency Broadband Benefit isn't open to everyone. Eligibility is limited, so you'll need someone in your household who qualifies in order to opt in.

There are several ways to qualify. The first is income-based: Any household with an income less than or equal to 135% of federal poverty guidelines qualifies. That figure is weighted by the number of people who live in your home and also by where you live, as the poverty line is set higher in Alaska and Hawaii than it is in the 48 contiguous states.

Here's how those numbers look in chart form:

Emergency Broadband Benefit: Qualifying income levels

Number of people in household 48 contiguous states, DC and territories Alaska Hawaii
1 $17,388 $21,722 $20,007
2 $23,517 $29,390 $27,054
3 $29,646 $37,058 $34,101
4 $35,775 $44,726 $41,148
5 $41,904 $52,394 $48,195
6 $48,033 $60,062 $55,242
7 $54,162 $67,730 $62,289
8 $60,291 $75,398 $69,336
For each additional person, add: $6,129 $7,668 $7,047

If you make more than that, you may still be eligible. Anyone who experienced a "substantial loss of income" after Feb. 29, 2020 qualifies so long as their 2020 income was at or below $99,000 for a single filer or $198,000 for joint filers. 

Additionally, your home qualifies if anyone in your household:

  • Qualifies for Lifeline benefits through participation in SNAP, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, Federal Public Housing Assistance or Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit.
  • Received a federal Pell Grant in the current award year.
  • Received approval for benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch or the school breakfast programs in the 2019-20 or 2020-21 school years.
  • Meets the eligibility criteria for an FCC-approved provider's existing low-income or COVID-19 program.

Eligibility also extends to any household participating in one of a number of tribal-specific assistance programs, including Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance, Tribal Head Start and Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. If your home is on qualifying tribal lands, the benefit goes up to $75 per month instead of $50.

Read more: Could your state secretly owe you money? How to find out for free

Step 2: Obtain proof of eligibility

You'll need to demonstrate your eligibility for the program when you apply, so be prepared to gather a document or two. Specifically, you'll need to show proof of your stated income, such as a pay stub or a tax return. If you need to show a loss of income, you'll also need to offer a termination letter, an application for unemployment benefits, a furlough notice or something similar.

Eligible by way of another program, like a Pell Grant or reduced-price lunches? Be prepared to show a card, letter or other official documentation as proof of participation when you apply.

For more guidance on what sort of documents will work best for proving eligibility, click here.

emergency-broadband-benefit-apply
Screenshot by Ry Crist/CNET

Step 3: Choose how to apply

You've got a number of ways to apply for the Emergency Broadband Benefit -- and in some cases you might not need to apply at all. For example, current enrollees of the Lifeline program don't need to reapply, and can skip ahead to step 4. The same goes for some people who are already enrolled in an existing low-income or COVID-19 assistance program with their internet provider, so long as the provider obtains approval for its application process from the FCC.

Those who do need to submit an application will be able to do so online now until the program ends. You can also print out an application, fill it out and send it along with proof of eligibility to the following address:

Emergency Broadband Support Center
P.O. Box 7081
London, KY 40742

On top of that, participating internet providers should be able to answer your eligibility questions and guide you through the application process. And, speaking of which...

Step 4: Talk to your internet provider

Once you submit your application, you should expect a timely reply. In fact, the FCC says that those who apply online may receive immediate approval. If the FCC's system can't immediately determine proof of eligibility, it'll request additional documentation and provide instructions as to how to submit those documents for review.

Either way, once you're approved, you'll want to give your internet provider a call, inform them of your enrollment, and ask them what plans are available at a discount. The FCC's website features a free tool to help find qualifying providers in your area -- you can access it by clicking here.

What else should I know?

For starters, it's important to remember that this is a temporary program, so the $50 discount on your internet bill won't last forever. The program will end once it runs out of money, or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the COVID-19 health emergency, whichever comes first. At that point, you'll need to agree to pay the regular rate for your internet plan if you want to keep using it.

That said, the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill currently working through Congress -- which passed a key test vote in the Senate with bipartisan support -- would make the benefit permanent, albeit it with the maximum discount lowered from $50 to $30. If passed, the bill would change the program's name to the Affordable Connectivity Benefit, and also add in additional consumer protections, like ensuring that ISPs can't tie the benefit to a long-term contract, or use it to prevent low-income customers from switching to a different provider. Eligible internet customers would also be able to apply the newly re-named Affordable Connectivity Benefit to any internet plan a provider offers, and they wouldn't need to go through a credit check in order to receive the discount.  

For additional questions about the Emergency Broadband Benefit, email EBBHelp@usac.org or call 833-511-0311 any day of the week between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. PT (9 a.m. to 9 p.m. ET).