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What Broadband Costs and How to Afford It

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The term broadband refers to “always connected” high-speed internet access, defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a minimum of 25 megabits per second (25 Mbps) download speed and three megabits per second (3 Mbps) upload speed.

A lack of affordable access to broadband is a major problem in the United States. It creates a gap between those with access to high-speed internet and those, often in rural and impoverished parts of the country, who lack that access. This gap, known as the digital divide, is the subject of government and private programs designed to make a decent internet connection available at an affordable price to everyone.

Key Takeaways

  • Broadband internet refers to continuously connected high-speed internet access.
  • DSL, fiber-optic, cable, and satellite are the four main kinds of broadband.
  • Depending on where you live, not all four types of broadband may be available.
  • A lack of high-speed internet has exacerbated the access gap, known as the digital divide, that many people in rural or impoverished areas experience.
  • Broadband internet can be expensive, especially in areas where access is limited.
  • Government and private programs are available to provide assistance if you qualify.

Why You Need Broadband

The original way to access the internet was through a dial-up connection, obtained by dialing a number on your phone line and connecting your computer to an internet service provider (ISP). For technical reasons, dial-up connections are limited to a top speed of 56 Kbps (kilobits per second), a speed that’s almost useless for anything except retrieving email.

According to the FCC, students and those who work from home (telecommuters) require 5 to 25 Mbps download speed at a minimum. The digital divide exists because, in many areas, those download speeds are either not available or unaffordable.

Four Main Types of Broadband

The four main types of broadband are DSL, fiber-optic, cable, and satellite. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but all are many times faster than dial-up.

  • DSL (digital subscriber line), like dial-up, uses phone lines but at download speeds up to about 115 Mbps. Since DSL uses phone lines, it is widely available, even in rural areas.
  • Fiber-optic uses tiny glass and plastic (fiber optic) lines to transmit data at speeds up to 1 gigabit per second (1 Gbps). Unfortunately, availability is limited.
  • Cable internet uses coaxial cables, from a cable service provider, and transmits at speeds up to 1 Gbps (although 100+ Mbps is more common). Cable internet is widely available except in rural areas.
  • Satellite has one huge advantage over all other types in that it is available to you no matter where you live. The satellite signal is beamed down to Earth (and your computer or smart device) from a satellite. Unfortunately, satellite download speeds are much slower than other broadband types, maxing out at about 25 megabits per second. However, they are improving significantly and, even at the basic level, still comfortably outperform dial-up.

Availability of Broadband Internet Where You Live

Aside from satellite—which, as noted, is available anywhere—availability of other types of broadband depends on where you live and who your ISP is. Fortunately, most areas have multiple options, depending on the speed that you need and the price that you are willing or able to pay.

Two tools can help you find out what’s available where you are:

  • The FCC Fixed Broadband Deployment website lets you plug in your ZIP code or address to generate a list of broadband providers, the type of broadband offered, and the speeds available.
  • The Broadband Search website asks for your ZIP code and then generates a list of prices and maximum speeds available in your area.

Not all ISPs listed for your ZIP code may offer service to your address. You may have to call or visit the website to find out.

Average Broadband Costs

Generally speaking, the higher the broadband speed, the higher the cost. Other factors come into play as well, including connection type (DSL, cable, etc.) and your location.

According to Reviews.org, the average monthly cost of DSL, cable, fiber-optic, and satellite internet connections in 2021 was $51, $51, $64, and $86, respectively. Generally, fiber-optic is the quickest option, though its availability is limited, particularly in rural areas. Those living completely in the sticks may have no choice but to opt for satellite, even though it offers significantly slower download speeds and costs more.

Programs to Help Pay Your Broadband Bill

Fortunately, there are both government and ISP-sponsored programs designed to make internet service more affordable for those who qualify. These programs are a big part of efforts to combat the digital divide discussed earlier.

In November 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law the historic $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Aside from earmarking funds for transportation, roads, power grids, supply of safe water, and so forth, the ambitious bipartisan legislation also set aside $65 billion to boost internet access in rural areas and among low-income families.

From that pot, $2.75 billion will be plowed into digital literacy training, $42.5 billion to supply high-speed internet to unserved areas, and $14.2 billion to the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).

The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP)

The ACP is set to replace the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, which was created temporarily during the COVID-19 pandemic to help low-income households pay for decent internet access. Those enrolled in the EBB on Dec. 31, 2021, can continue receiving subsidies from it for 60 days. After that point, they will need to switch to the similarly-functioning ACP, provided they still qualify for financial assistance.

The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) vs. the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB)

What distinguishes the ACP from the EBB it’s replacing is that it’s a long-term initiative, rather than a short-term measure, is easier to qualify for, and offers smaller monthly discounts on the internet.

In terms of payments, the ACP will contribute $30 per month to qualifying households’ internet bills, which is less than the $50 monthly discount on internet offered by the EBB. However, the FCC did confirm that the monthly benefit for households located on tribal lands will remain at $75.

To qualify for ACP, households must meet one of the following criteria:

  • An income up to 200% of the federal poverty guidelines (EBB was set at 135%)
  • Receive benefits from one of the following federal assistance programs: Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA), or Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit
  • Be enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program or the school breakfast program
  • Receive a Federal Pell Grant during the current award year
  • Located on tribal lands and participate in Bureau of Indian Affairs general assistance, Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, or Head Start—provided the household meets the income qualifying standard
  • Be eligible for a participating ISP’s own existing low-income program

With the EBB, people who experienced a significant loss of income due to job loss or being furloughed after Feb. 29, 2020, could also qualify for help paying for the internet. According to the FCC, households that gained access to the EBB this way will need to re-qualify to continue receiving benefits under the ACP.

The FCC also stressed that the ACP will prohibit upselling and basically forcing recipients of the program to upgrade their internet connection to qualify, which was a point of contention for the EBB. Other changes include ensuring ACP recipients aren’t pushed into opting for an extended service contract and making it easier for recipients to change internet providers.

It’s likely that the ACP will follow the same application process as the EBB, which involved taking one of the following steps:

  • Contact a participating broadband provider directly to learn about its application process
  • Go to GetEmergencyBroadband.org to apply online and find participating providers near you
  • Call 833-511-0311 for a mail-in application, and return it along with the required documents to the provided address

However, as of Nov. 19, 2021, the FCC has still yet to clarify what actions existing EBB recipients will need to take to switch to the ACP and continue receiving support once the transition period ends.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program is soon set to be replaced by the longer-term Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which will continue to subsidize the internet bills of qualified households.

Lifeline

Lifeline is another government program backed by the FCC. It provides a monthly phone or internet service discount of $9.25 ($34.25 per month for households in tribal lands).

There are two ways to qualify for Lifeline:

  • If your income is 135% of the federal poverty guidelines or less
  • If you or someone in your household participates in one of the following programs: SNAP, SSI, Veterans and Survivors Pension benefits, FPHA, Medicaid, and Tribal Programs for Native Americans

If you qualify, choose a participating provider in your area and sign up. You’ll have to provide proof of eligibility and renew your Lifeline subscription every year. You also must choose between a phone, internet, or bundled service subsidy.

If you qualify for Lifeline, you automatically qualify for the ACP and can receive both benefits at the same time.

Low-Income Internet Options

Several ISPs also offer broadband plans specifically for low-income families. To qualify for one of these attractively priced deals, you’ll need to be eligible for or a recipient of a specific government assistance program.

Below you’ll find a list of some standout low-income internet plans currently on the market:

Optimum Advantage Internet

Cable service provider Altice runs the Optimum and Suddenlink ISPs. Customers with access to either one can sign up for Optimum Advantage Internet, which was previously known as Altice Advantage Internet and offers internet speeds up to 50 Mbps for $14.99 per month.

To qualify, applicants must satisfy one of the following demands:

  • A household with a student that qualifies or participates in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) or a New York resident attending a New York City public school
  • Be age 65 or older and eligible for—or receiving—SSI
  • Be a veteran receiving state or federal public assistance

To apply, contact your Optimum or Suddenlink ISP.

AT&T Access

AT&T’s Access program offers internet speeds of up to 25 Mbps for $10 per month to qualifying participants.

To be eligible for Access, you must belong to a limited-income household that qualifies for SNAP or receives SSI benefits in California. AT&T, in light of the current public health crisis, has also temporarily expanded access to households participating in National School Lunch and Head Start Programs.

Applications can be made through the AT&T Access website.

Xfinity Internet Essentials

Xfinity’s Internet Essentials program lets you purchase a plan with speeds up to 50 Mbps for just $9.95 per month. You can also apply for Internet Essentials Plus, which offers 100 Mbps for $29.95 per month.

To qualify, a member of your household must:

  • Qualify for a listed program such as the NSLP, housing assistance, Medicaid, SNAP, SSI, Federal Pell Grant, and others listed on the application
  • Live in an area where Comcast internet service is available
  • Have not had Comcast internet in the last 90 days

Apply on the Internet Essentials website.

Spectrum Internet Assist

Spectrum’s Internet Assist program offers speeds up to 30 Mbps for $14.99 per month.

You can qualify for Internet Assist provided that one member of your household is a recipient of at least one of the following:

  • The NSLP
  • The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) of the NSLP
  • SSI (for applicants aged 65 and older)

You can apply online; by downloading, completing, and mailing an application; or by contacting your local Spectrum office.

How Can I Get Free Broadband Internet?

Low-income-earning households may qualify for government subsidies that, in some cases, can result in paying nothing for internet access. Recipients of Lifeline and the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) can end up paying very little and maybe even nothing if they opt for one of the low-income plans offered by some internet providers.

How Much Is the Average Internet Bill Per Month?

Internet costs vary, depending on your location, required speed and connection type, and the competition in the market. To give you a rough idea, the average monthly cost of DSL, cable, fiber-optic, and satellite internet connections in 2021 was reportedly $51, $51, $64, and $86, respectively.

Why Is Broadband So Expensive?

The cost of getting high-speed internet into our homes can be high and these costs are often passed from the provider to the consumer. As with other technologies, it is hoped that these costs will gradually begin to fall as the infrastructure improves and more competitors enter the market.

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