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Pandemic emergency program offers $50 off your internet bill

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Americans can begin applying for $50 off their monthly internet bill on Wednesday as part of an emergency government program to keep people connected during the pandemic.

The $3.2 billion program is part of the $900 billion December pandemic-relief package. The government is increasing spending on broadband as the pandemic made stark that millions of Americans did not have access to, and could not afford, broadband at a time when jobs, schools and health care were moving online.

Jessica Rosenworcel, the acting chairwoman of the FCC, said the program is aimed at helping people who have had to sit in parking lots or outside a public library to catch a wifi signal, as well as free up household budgets that have been squeezed by the pandemic's economic impact. 

The program will be open to households that already participate in a pandemic or low-income relief program offered by a broadband service, as well as people already enrolled in the FCC's Lifeline program for low-income people, and households with children receiving free or reduced-price school meals. Additionally, the program will be open to people who have lost jobs and had their income reduced in the past year, the agency said.

It's unclear how long the money will last but it's expected to be several months. Tens of millions of people are eligible, although the Federal Communications Commission, which is administering the program, did not specify a number.

For example, your household is eligible if you receive food stamps, have a child in the free or reduced-price school lunch program, use Medicaid, or lost income during the pandemic and made up to $99,000 for single filers or $198,000 for joint filers.

There are other eligibility requirements, too — see https://getemergencybroadband.org to find out if you qualify.

You can get the discount even if you owe your phone or cable company money. That's important because some people have been barred from low-cost plans offered by internet service providers when they owed their service provider money. More than 800 cellphone and home-internet companies are participating, including AT&T, Charter, Comcast, T-Mobile and Verizon.

The great broadband divide 09:01

People in tribal areas are eligible for up to $75 off their bill. There is also a $100 reimbursement for desktop computers, laptops or tablets — in that case, you must pay between $10 and $50 of the cost of the device yourself and buy it through your broadband provider. An analysis of internet bills by the Wall Street Journal found that the average bill for stand-alone broadband service was about $66 a month.

The discount could apply to a household's whole bill, or you can use it to trade up to a more expensive offering and your bill is partly covered. 

"Very good" but "not enough"

The Emergency Broadband Benefit is a more robust, although temporary, program to help people afford internet than Lifeline, the FCC's other affordability program, which subtracts $9.25 a month from phone or internet bills. A household can use both the Lifeline and EBB programs.

Some experts, however, say the potential pool of eligible families may quickly outstrip the program's funding. Once the $3.2 billion runs out, the program will end, according to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a group that advocates for wider broadband access. 

"There are two things to know about this program: One is that it's very good it's in place, and two, it's definitely not enough," said Phillip Lovell, vice president of policy development and government relations for Alliance for Excellent Education, a nonprofit that focuses on improving educational outcomes for high school students.

The United States has the third most-expensive broadband internet in the developed world, due mostly to a lack of competition among service providers. 

"Millions of Americans are still struggling with everything from remote work to distance learning to telehealth simply because they lack the access to internet they need," said Tom Ferree, chairman and chief executive of Connected Nation, a Kentucky-based nonprofit that works with underserved communities to improve digital inclusion. 

"Those millions include our nation's children, senior citizens, veterans and military spouses, the physically challenged, tribal and rural communities, and so many others. We believe this program will help address many of the digital inequities that persist — and are hopeful that this is only the beginning," Ferree said.

President Biden will meet with the top four leaders in Congress on Wednesday as negotiations continue over the president's multitrillion-dollar infrastructure plan. Part of that plan includes $100 billion toward broadband expansion.

The FCC on Tuesday approved a $7.2 billion program for schools and libraries to connect students in their homes. The Treasury Department is also setting up a $10 billion fund for improving internet connectivity. The money for both came from the $1.9 trillion March pandemic relief package.

Hundreds of billions more in general funds have been sent to states that could be spent on broadband access.

Aimee Picchi contributed to this story.

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