Internet Options for Low and Fixed Income households
The bottom line: unless you’re already enrolled in a low-income assistance program like public housing or SNAP, it is unlikely that you qualify for assistance paying for home Internet. However, many providers have plans geared towards low-income customers.
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In 2020, having access to reliable internet service is more important than ever before.
Unfortunately, many plans are prohibitively expensive for low and fixed income customers.
Fortunately, there are multiple plans and programs that you can take advantage of in order to secure high speed internet as a cost that works for you.
Affordable Internet: What you Need To Know
There are four main types of internet connection technology that differ in speed and pricing:
- Dial-Up: Extremely slow, somewhat unreliable, but often the most affordable.
- DSL: Slow, reliable, and often the most affordable.
- Cable: A balance of speed and value.
- Fiber: Limited availability, fast speeds, and higher pricing.
The best type of connection will depend on the deals available in your area as well as the budget you have set aside for internet. That said, there are various free options available in nearly every location — if you know where to look. Before evaluating some of the best free options, it’s important to note that you will almost certainly need to make some concessions to get your internet for free. In other words, you can generally expect slower speeds, less reliable connections, and greater limitations on data usage. Nonetheless, if you don’t plan on using a lot of data and you’re content with slower speeds, free internet can end up saving you a lot of money.
Free Internet Options
Some of the best free internet options are public hotspots. You can generally find these at coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, bookstores, hotels, airports, and bus stations. Many large retail chains and grocery stores also offer free-to-use WiFi hotspots. While you should be careful sharing any personal information or conducting financial transactions over public hotspots, they are generally safe and secure for regular web browsing.
If you’d like to get free internet without needing to stay in a specific location outside of your home, you still have a few options. Many cities around the country (and the globe) offer free public WiFi across a municipal wireless network. For example, Santa Clara (Silicon Valley) and New York City both have large public WiFi networks that are readily accessible by anyone within the network’s range.
For those who don’t live in cities with large public WiFi networks, companies like FreedomPop and NetZero are the two best options for free home internet. With FreedomPop, you can get a free phone plan or a portable router for on-the-go WiFi. You will have to pay a refundable deposit for the device, but this amount will be returned to you if and when you decide to stop using the service. Though most of FreedomPop’s data plans are not free, you can opt for the Basic 500 plan to get 500 MB of monthly data free of charge. So, if you just need low-cost internet access for casual browsing (i.e. not streaming or other data-heavy activities), FreedomPop may be the best solution for you.
Alternatively, you can get free home internet with NetZero. Since it is a dial-up connection, you will need to have a phone jack, phone line, and modem. This also means that you can expect relatively slow speeds compared to DSL, cable, or fiber optic connections. As a result, this is also not a great option for streamers or gamers. Additionally, NetZero limits free accounts to just 10 hours of browsing per month. In any case, you simply need to download the NetZero software to an internet ready device, go through the modem setup, and connect your device to the home network. Though it’s not ideal for heavy internet users, it’s one of the easiest ways to get reliable home internet at absolutely no cost to you.
Finally, if you don’t want to deal with the hassle of a new ISP or a separate device, you can always use your smartphone and an existing phone plan to create a mobile hotspot. However, your experience could vary immensely based on your phone service provider and the terms of your plan. Some phone plans don’t even allow you to create a mobile hotspot without a separate mobile hotspot plan. However, assuming that you can create a mobile hotspot with your existing plan, you should keep an eye on your data usage. Many carriers will set a monthly data cap, beyond which you may need to pay for additional data or experience throttled speeds.
Information For Renters
Often, renters will be locked into purchasing a connection from a specific provider by their landlord. These ISP-landlord agreements are technically illegal, but as a renter you often have few options to pursue when choosing your provider if you find yourself in this predicament.
One potential option is to ask about installing a less expensive Fixed Wireless solution, but these situations often necessitate seeking out the best deals that are available for that specific provider.
We’ve compiled a list of affordable plans in the sections below, but a quick call to your chosen ISP can often connect you with the resources you need for an educated decision.
Avenues For Assistance
Many major internet service providers offer plans that cater directly to those on a fixed income. These services offer discounted service but can also still be a little out of reach for those on a budget. They often also necessitate eligibility for government assistance.
Another option to pursue is a government subsidy. These plans often offer slower internet connections, but are some of the most affordable available.
What Are The Best Internet Options For Low Income Families?
While there are multiple avenues for receiving support due to low income, there are a surprising number of plans from major service providers that may suit your needs without necessitating applying for any specific program.
Keep in mind that these plans may or may not be available based on your area. Information on provider availability can be accessed easily using the search tool at the top of this page.
Xfinity offers inexpensive plans, but the primary way in which they stand out is with their bundled services. If you’re looking to purchase high-speed internet that comes with an excellent TV service, Xfinity might be your best option.
Spectrum’s cheapest plan is more expensive than what you’ll find with Xfinity, but a key advantage this provider offers are plans without data caps and without contracts. When income is limited, the ability to cancel service at will may more than make up for the slightly more expensive monthly fee.
Spectrum’s most affordable plan is actually fast enough to cover HD streaming — making it an excellent option for those who are willing to shell out a little extra each month for a speedy connection and the peace of mind that a month-to-month agreement provides.
Verizon FiOS provides some of the fastest speeds on the market and has one of the most extensive fiber networks in the United States.
FiOS isn’t the cheapest option, but it is one of the most widely available providers nationwide. While you may find lower prices with other providers, the combination of fast speeds and wide availability make Verizon worth a second look.
If you’re looking for service in a rural area, Centurylink is one of the most accessible providers in the United States. The DSL speeds generally don’t compete with options from Cable and Fiber providers, and their own Fiber service is only marginally faster than DSL. However, they are a reliable (and sometimes the only) option for those who live far from a city.
While DSL service is available to the majority of the United States due to the pre-existing infrastructure, HughesNet satellite service has an even wider range. Due to the limitations of the technology you’ll have to deal with a data cap and slightly slower speeds, but they remain one of the top providers for those who don’t have access to a wired option.
These plans are some of the cheapest default options available from major providers, but they may be a little out of reach or unavailable in your area. If none of these options work for your family, it’s time to start looking into provider-specific low income plans.
Low-Income Assistance Plans Available From Major Internet Providers
The programs listed below are specifically designed to provide accessible pricing for those who are on a fixed income. If you can’t find information for your specific provider, a quick phone call to customer support will often get you connected with their dedicated assistance program.
The AT&T Access program offers basic internet service for low-income families. With speeds available up to 10 Mbps for around $10.00 a month, it’s a viable way to stay connected for basic web browsing.
Access is available for families with at least one family member who participates in the SNAP program. If your household doesn’t participate in SNAP or another pre-qualification program, AT&T internet deals are generally the lowest consumer-grade option for home internet. However, DSL speeds from AT&T are usually slower than cable for streaming Netflix.
To determine if you’re eligible, visit the Access page and fill out an application.
Internet Essentials From Comcast
The Internet Essentials program from Comcast allows qualifying customers to purchase an affordable 15 Mbps plan at just $9.95 per month. The service also includes free in-home WiFi and is available without a credit check.
One unique perk to the Internet Essentials program is the ability for customers to purchase a subsidized laptop or desktop computer for $149, which is less expensive than what you’d usually find in-store or online. The computer includes Microsoft Office, Norton Security Suite, and a 90-day warranty.
In order to be eligible for the Internet Essentials program, you must have at least one child eligible for the National School Lunch program as well as meet a number of other criteria.
Spectrum Internet Assist
The Spectrum Internet Assist functions similarly to the assistance from Comcast, and requires that families have a child eligible for the National School Lunch Program.
The service is a little bit more expensive than Xfinity at $14.99 per month, but the speeds are twice as fast with a 30 Mbps connection. WiFi costs $5.00 extra with this plan, so if you’re hoping for a wireless connection you should keep that extra cost in mind.
To apply for Spectrum Internet Assist, visit the Spectrum Assist website or call 1-855-542-6651.
Cox Low-Cost Internet is integrated with the Connect2Compete program, which is aimed at helping K-12 students stay connected with access to affordable internet. The program costs $9.95 a month, and is available to families that have a child in kindergarten or grades 1-12.
In order to be eligible for Cox Low-Cost Internet, your family will need to be participating in at least one of the programs listed below.
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- National School Lunch Program
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
- Public Housing
Visit the Cox Low-Cost Internet Website in order to apply for assistance.
Mediacom is another major ISP that participates in the Connect2Compete program, and offers high-speed internet service for $9.95 per month to families with at least one child in a free or reduced lunch program.
More information on the Mediacom assistance program can be found on their dedicated site or through calling 1-855-904-2225.
The Lifeline Network
The providers listed below don’t have an income assistance program per se, but they offer low-cost plans and participate in the Lifeline network — a government subsidy program that connects low-income families with discounts at many major providers.
In order to qualify for Lifeline Network Assistance, you must have an income at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, or participate in one of the following programs:
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Federal Public Housing Assistance (Section 8)
Native American communities also have special considerations that afford eligibility for the Lifeline Network:
- Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
- Tribally-Administered Temporary Assistance For Needy Families
- Food Distribution Program On Indian Reservations
- Head Start (provided income eligibility criteria are met)
In order to determine whether you’re eligible for the Lifeline Network assistance, use the Official Eligibility Screener.
The cheapest Frontier Communications plan starts at $20 per month, and the Lifeline Network subsidy reduces that to around $10 which puts it directly in line with other low-income programs.
For more information, visit the Frontier Discount Programs page.
A combination of affordable plans and the Lifeline discount brings the price of the cheapest internet connection to around $9.25 per month.
Visit the Windstream Lifeline page for the details on how to secure these discounts.
RCN offers affordable plans by default, and the Lifeline network subsidies reduce those costs even further.
Prices of the cheapest plan will depend on your location, but the latest information on the available discounts are available at RCN Lifeline
These three providers are only a few of the ISPs that provide discounts through Lifeline. For a comprehensive list of options available near you, visit the Universal Service Administrative Company website.
Other Options For Affordable Internet Service
While low-income provider plans and government subsidy programs like the Lifeline Network make affordable internet a reality for many low-income families, there are also a number of other assistance programs and nonprofits that work to make internet access more accessible.
Human I-T is a nonprofit that works in collaboration with Frontier Communications and their Affordable Broadband program.
For low-income families that are part of the LifeLine program, the Human-IT and Frontier collaboration provides affordable connections as well as a free Chromebook while supplies last.
The Chromebook is not available in every area, and you can check whether you’re eligible using this form.
Even if you’re not able to receive the free Chromebook, you can access affordable internet by signing up at the Human-IT website.
PCs For People
PCs For People offers low-cost internet to individuals with an income under 200% of the Federal Poverty Line or who are on income-based assistance programs.
The service offers high-speed 4G LTE internet service for as low as $10 per month, and is available nationwide. Unfortunately, there is a rather high upfront cost associated with purchasing the equipment, but the low monthly fees will more than make up for the investment over time.
For details on plans and pricing, visit the PCs for People Low-Cost Internet Page.
PCs for People offers services that extend beyond internet as well, such as discounts on refurbished PCs that are available online or in one of their stores.
Community Mesh Networks
The majority of these solutions focus on working to reduce costs with a traditional ISP, but what if you could bypass the provider all together?
A Community Mesh Network is a collection of access points concentrated locally, and these points communicate with one another in order to transmit data. These mesh networks are often, but not always, connected to the rest of the Internet, and represent a grassroots approach to making internet service more accessible and affordable.
To see if a community network is available in your area, take a look at the compilation of known Mesh Networks in the United States.
If a Mesh Network isn’t available in your area, it’s actually possible to start one of your own. It’s a highly technical process, but if you’re tech-savvy and would like to give back to your community you can follow this Mesh Network guide.
While not a charity themselves per se, nonprofit group EveryoneOn is an excellent resource for learning more about affordable internet connections.
Things Fixed Income Customers Need To Watch Out For
The resources above should get you well on your way to securing affordable internet for your household. Here are a few more considerations you should keep in mind to avoid surprises.
- Some plans come with introductory pricing, and prices can gradually rise as time goes on. Often all it takes is a call to your ISP to negotiate the terms of your plan and keep your prices affordable.
- Internet Service Providers aren’t always totally up-front with the details of their pricing, so it’s important to make sure you read the fine print and understand any additional charges. Early Termination Fees can break the bank if you’re not careful, so if they apply to your plan make sure you can carry out the entirety of your contract or set money aside.
- Making smart decisions about how you approach your technology can lead to serious savings. Consider Over The Air Television rather than cable, or maybe a cheaper DSL connection rather than Cable. Making compromises will allow you to stay connected without going over budget.
Internet For Seniors
Many ISPs offer discounts specifically for seniors. If you are over 65, a call to customer service could lead to significant price reductions. It’s also important that you understand the best internet services for seniors, who often use the internet for more limited functions like email, rather than for streaming video or work.
Is Low Income Internet Available In My Area?
While there are some services that are available nationwide, oftentimes the available programs will be based on your geographic location. The tool at the top of this page will give you a sense of the ISPs available in your area, but there are some general guidelines that can help you get connected with a service that will suit your needs.
- Call ISPs directly rather than ordering online or through a third-party. Many assistance programs come directly from the company rather than through any sort of reseller.
- If you’re on public assistance, you may be able to get set up with low-cost internet by reaching out to the programs that you already participate in. Oftentimes the professionals associated with these services have valuable information on other ways to cut costs.
- Take the time to evaluate all available options. On a limited budget, a savings of even just $5 or $10 a month may make all the difference.