Internet Options for Low and Fixed Income Households
When the world first connected to the internet, online access was considered a luxury. You’d use it to chat with friends, send emails, and browse websites.
Now, the internet has gone past luxury and into the realm of necessity. You’ll still use it for all the social interactions and entertainment you would’ve back in the 1990s, but it’s become more of a utility. You can now apply for jobs, have a career, and get a degree, all from the comfort of your home.
Unfortunately, internet access comes at a cost. Monthly internet access to your home will cost an average of $47. When many consumers live paycheck-to-paycheck, $47 could be unattainable in some cases.
If you live in a low or fixed-income household, several options are available to access the internet at little or no cost. Between free access, provided plans, and government assistance, there’s a plan available for everyone.
In this article you will find out...
- Paid Internet Options
- Free Internet Options
- Where to Find Assistance
- Tips for Finding Low-Income Internet Access
Paid Internet Options
When you start looking for internet options, you’ll come across five types:
- Fiber optic
Each option has its pros and cons, including variations in price, connection quality, and availability. In addition, not all options are available nationwide.
Here’s a quick breakdown to help you see the differences.
Dial-up internet is quite rare these days, but it’s still available as a low-cost option in many areas. It’s the most limited choice because it doesn’t offer high-speed capabilities and requires a landline. If you need basic access, it should suit your needs.
Digital Subscriber Line, or DSL, is the cheapest and most reliable form of in-home internet. It’s also widely available. Unfortunately, it can be a bit slow. However, if you aim for cost savings and functionality, this is your best bet.
Cable internet is the happy medium of internet options. It’s widely available, reliable, and, though pricier than DSL, reasonably well-priced.
Satellite internet is another option available in most places. However, it’s not very reliable and can be pretty slow. It’s also more expensive than DSL.
Fiber internet is the fastest internet available. However, it has two main downsides. First, it has very limited availability. Second, it’s expensive.
Which Do You Choose?
Most internet service providers will require you to be on public assistance to qualify for discounted rates. If you’re low-income but aren’t receiving public assistance, your best options are to check dial-up, DSL, and cable internet options. Those are the areas you’re likely to find the lowest costs.
Free Internet Options
Urban or more congested areas are more likely to have a variety of free internet options than rural areas. In addition to potential free access you might be able to get using an assistance program, there are a few other places you can check.
City-wide Access Points
Most larger cities and an increasing number of smaller ones have city-wide wireless networks that allow residents to access the internet. You can access using your wireless-enabled device anywhere within range of an access point, including in your home.
Municipal wireless internet is excellent if you’re on the go often but don’t have a data plan on your phone. You’ll be able to do everything you need virtually anywhere in the city.
Unfortunately, some areas might still require you to have your broadband account to connect. For example, the wireless access points might only be accessible to Xfinity internet or Verizon internet customers. Although this is increasingly rare, it’s still a good substitute for a wireless data plan that would add to your cell phone bill.
Another place to check for free internet access is in local businesses. Many chain restaurants and stores, such as Barnes & Noble or Starbucks, provide a place to connect to the internet for free and sit with your device.
Although these hotspots are typically very safe, you should use caution if you plan to pay bills or do any official paperwork. It’s unlikely anyone else will be able to access your data. Still, considering the access points are privately owned and wide-open, you can’t be too careful.
Some businesses might require you to use a password to access their internet. This is usually the case with small businesses and is a means to minimize congestion. You can usually find the password written by someone in the establishment or by asking an employee.
Many government buildings will have free wireless access for visitors. The library is one of the best places to go because it tends to be quiet and you’ll have a place to sit. If you have work to do or want to pop in your headphones and listen to some music, the library is a good place to do so uninterrupted.
Your Place of Employment
Many workplaces have wireless access for their employees. If you can’t afford access from home, you could connect while you’re at work to try to get specific tasks done. Of course, you should avoid spending extended periods online while at work, but taking care of the necessities, like paying bills or applying for jobs, could be doable.
That said, you should always clear things with your supervisor first. Depending on your company’s policy, you may or may not be allowed to use your personal device during working hours. Find out if you’re permitted online during downtime, break time, or not at all before connecting.
If you have a data plan on your phone, you can use your phone’s data plan instead of purchasing a second in-home plan. You can turn your phone into a hotspot that’ll connect your computer to the internet in many cases. Since many wireless providers offer unlimited data plans, this could be the best alternative.
However, this option has the potential to turn expensive quickly if you have a capped data plan. When data is your only option, try to restrict your usage to lower-use activities. For example, streaming music and basic web browsing won’t take up too much data. However, if you work from home and do online meetings often, you could use your monthly allotment of data in a few days.
Free Home Internet
Most of the above suggestions will only help if you’re away from home. Fortunately, there are options for free in-home internet that you can check out, too.
For example, NetZero is a California-based company that offers free dial-up to customers. Another option is FreedomPop, which provides free service for the one-time cost of a SIM card.
The main downside to services like these is that they’re very limited. For example, FreedomPop’s free plan only provides 10 minutes, 10 text messages, and 25 MB of data every 30 days.
Likewise, NetZero only offers dial-up, significantly limiting what you can do with your devices. Their free service also isn’t available for Mac or Windows post-Vista.
Where to Find Assistance
There are two government-funded programs that can help you get free or low-cost internet. In addition, most internet providers also offer plans with deeply-discounted monthly costs for low-income residents.
Affordable Connectivity Program
In 2021, the United States FCC started the Affordable Connectivity Program. Formerly the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, this federal program helps provide low-income households with broadband internet access. The program has two specific benefits:
- $30 per month discount on internet service ($75 on Tribal lands)
- One-time $100 discount toward a computer or tablet
When you start looking for discounted rates for your internet, the first place you should check is the FCC’s website. The FCC outlines specific requirements, but essentially, you’ll need to check at least one of the following boxes to qualify:
- Participation in a public assistance program (Tribal or otherwise)
- Participates in National School Lunch or School Breakfast programs
- Received a Pell Grant
- Meets the provider’s criteria for discounts
If any of those factors apply to you, you’re already on your way to discounted rates. Of course, the final cost will depend on the provider you choose.
Lifeline is a federally-funded program launched in 1985. At its outset, Lifeline provided discounted phone service to low-income households.
In March of 2016, the government expanded the program to include broadband internet services. As a result, low-income residents will have access to phone and internet services for a low monthly cost.
As of December 1, 2021, Lifeline offers the following to low-income households:
- 1000 voice minutes
- 4.5 GB of data over 3G internet
- 1,220 GB of broadband
Lifeline provides a $9.25 discount for phone and broadband services. In addition, if you live on eligible Tribal lands, you can receive an enhanced discount of $34.25 each month.
Although this might not seem like much when you consider the cost of many internet plans, the opposite is true. Many companies offer basic access plans that align with the government’s discounts.
Discounted Internet Plans
Most of the big ISPs provide discounted programs to low and fixed-income households. You’ll need to go through a special application process to show eligibility in most instances. However, the process is simple and straightforward.
Comcast Internet Essentials
Comcast’s Internet Essentials is a low-cost program that provides internet to households who fall into the low-income category. The three qualifications include:
- Qualify for specific public assistance programs
- Live in a Comcast-serviced area
- Haven’t had Comcast service in the past 90 days
If you qualify for the program, you can receive high-speed internet for $9.95 a month. In addition, Comcast has a low-cost computer program that’ll help you purchase a new computer for as little as $150.
Another company that has low-income programs is Verizon. With your Lifeline discount, you can access Verizon’s fiber-optic internet for only $20 a month. If Fios isn’t available or you don’t want to spend $20 each month, Verizon has a 300 Mbps internet option free of charge after government discounts.
At&T’s Access program comes in two tiers. The standard paid option for internet service costs $30 per month. It’s available for any household that participates in specific public assistance programs or falls below 200% of the federal poverty level.
The second tier or AT&T’s Access program is free for anyone applying through the Affordable Connectivity Program. Once you’ve confirmed your eligibility for the ACP, you can sign up for AT&T on their website to get a discount of $30 off the regular Access price.
Spectrum Internet Assist
Spectrum Internet Assist provides eligible households with 30 Mbps high-speed internet at a discounted rate. You’ll also receive anti-virus software and a modem with your plan. To qualify, you’ll need to receive assistance under one of the following:
- National School Lunch Program
- Community Eligibility Provision of the NSLP
- Social Security Income
Cox offers low-income households with K-12 students internet at a discounted cost. Cox’s Connect2Compete program provides eligible households with 100 Mbps internet for $9.95 per month. Your family will need to be on a government assistance program to qualify.
Mediacom’s Connect2Compete program is essentially the same as Cox’s. If your household has a child in the K-12 school system and receives public assistance, you’ll be eligible for discounted internet.
Mediacom’s two options are 25 Mbps service for $9.95 per month or 100 Mbps at $30 per month.
Tips for Finding Low-Income Internet Access
Here are a few tips for finding free or low-cost internet in your area.
- Call ISPs directly to ensure you follow the proper steps and get the best discounts.
- See if there are any mesh networks in your area. These locally-organized networks provide free access to individuals nearby.
- Use a wifi finder to locate nearby access points.
- Do your research. Make sure you know what options are available to you before settling on a provider.
When you’re on a fixed income, you shouldn’t have to choose between internet access and another monthly expense. Fortunately, low-income or fixed-income households have a lot of options. You won’t have any trouble getting your home and family connected between government programs and company discounts.