It took the government a long time to move from helping people afford landline phones to helping them get a cell phone. The next logical step is subsidized high-speed internet for the needy, and we hope it doesn’t take as long for this step to occur as it did for the cell phone program.
Unfortunately, the government is not yet directly offering free internet or discounted internet service, but, we see the FCC moving in the direction of getting the rural and the poor connected.
Free and Almost Free Internet
However, we do have very good news: there are companies that are offering heavily discounted high-speed internet to the very same people who qualify for the Lifeline/Link-Up programs that give out a free cell phone to needy Americans. This is not mandated by the government like the phone program is, but the qualifications are similar.
Actually, there is one company that does offer completely free high-speed internet, based upon the Lifeline qualification criteria. The problem is that this free internet program is only available in Kansas.
Let’s take a look at all of the internet companies who have a plan that follows the Lifeline qualification criteria, both free and nearly-free:
Almost Free Broadband from CenturyLink
CenturyLink – There is no mandatory compulsion for internet providers to have low-cost plans for the poor. However, CenturyLink has such a plan in every one of the 37 states in which they do business.
They didn’t do it out of the kindness of their heart, agreeing only to provide the plans in order to help convince the Federal Communications Commission to approve its purchase of rival Qwest Communications. But no matter, they are obligated to give you broadband access for only $9.95 a month. In addition, they will sell you a netbook computer for just $149.99!
The eligibility criteria are the same as for a free cell phone, meaning for each state they follow the Lifeline Assistance eligibility guidelines. If you go to their website, you will see the requirements and an application for each state.
Almost Free Broadband from Comcast
Comcast – This provider has a very similar deal as, described above, from CenturyLink. You get the same bargain of $9.95 a month for broadband, and a laptop computer for $149.99; but the requirements for this program are quite different.
Instead of qualifying for under the Lifeline Assistance program, you qualify if you are a family with at least one child who receives free (not discounted) school lunches via the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Take note that if you do have a child in the lunch program, chances are you also qualify for the Lifeline program, and therefore the CenturyLink plan as well; you very well could have a choice of which company to get internet service from.
As with CenturyLink above, this may or may not have been a goodwill since the program is actually a result of the Comcast-NBC merger, in which one of the conditions was that the company agreed to “increase broadband deployment in low income households,” for a term of three years.
The Future of Broadband for Poor Americans
The Universal Service Fund is the organization that collects and distributes money from the government to subsidize landline phones and completely pay for free cell phones, so the poor can afford basic phones and service. But while cell phones may have seemed on the cutting edge when they decided to include them in the Lifeline and Link-Up programs, reliable, high-speed internet is what is now critical in helping people communicate.
Recent events appear to suggest that in the near future we will see the money that is going to landline phone subsidization phased out, and the funds used to help the financially distressed receive basic, high-speed internet service through what may be known as the Connect America Fund. We’ll be reporting on these changes as they occur, and keeping you up to date on where you can take advantage of the free or discounted internet plans.
UPDATE: The National Cable & Telecommunications Association just announced Connect-to-Compete, a program that will begin offering discounted, high-speed internet service for just $9.95 per month to families whose children qualify for free lunches at their schools. Coming Spring 2012 in all fifty states.