Internet Options for Low- and Fixed-Income Households
Having access to reliable internet service is more important than ever, but many plans are expensive for low- and fixed-income customers. Fortunately, you can take advantage of multiple plans and programs to secure low-income internet service or free high-speed internet.
Our guide covers low-cost and free internet options for households with low- or fixed-income and how to apply to government and non-government programs for affordable broadband. Let’s take a closer look.
Low-Cost Internet Service
There are four main internet connection types that differ in speeds and pricing:
- DSL: Slow, reliable, and often the most affordable.
- Satellite: Wide availability, slow, unreliable, and higher pricing.
- Cable: A balance of speed and value.
- Fiber: Limited availability, fast speeds, and higher pricing.
The best type of connection depends on the deals available in your area and your budget for internet service. Free internet options are also available in nearly every location — if you know where to look.
Before evaluating the best free options, it’s important to note that you will most likely need to make concessions to get your internet for free. You can generally expect slower speeds, less reliable connections, and greater limitations on data usage. If you don’t plan to use much data and you’re content with slower speeds, then free internet can save you a lot of money.
Free Internet Options
Public hotspots are one of the best free internet options. You can generally find them at coffee shops, restaurants, libraries, bookstores, hotels, airports, and bus stations. Many large retail chains and grocery stores also offer free Wi-Fi hotspots. That said, you should be careful about sharing any personal information or conducting financial transactions over public hotspots. Generally, though, they’re safe and secure for regular web browsing. It’s recommended that you use a reliable VPN service to encrypt and protect your data; most VPN providers offer either a free version or trial of their services.
If you’d like to get free internet without staying in a specific location outside your home, you have a few options. Many cities offer free public Wi-Fi across municipal wireless networks. Santa Clara (Silicon Valley) and New York City both have large public Wi-Fi networks that are readily accessible by anyone within the network’s range.
For people who don’t live in cities with large public Wi-Fi networks, FreedomPop and NetZero are the two best options for free home internet. With FreedomPop, you can get a free mobile plan with internet service. As for NetZero, you can get free dial-up internet. Note that you’ll need a phone jack, phone line, and modem, and you can expect relatively slow speeds compared to DSL, cable, and fiber-optic connections. It’s not a great option for streamers or gamers, and NetZero limits free accounts to just 10 hours of browsing per month.
If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of a new internet service provider (ISP) or a separate device, you can always use your smartphone and an existing phone plan to create a mobile hotspot. Your experience, however, may vary immensely based on your phone or portable internet service provider and the terms of your plan. Make sure to keep an eye on your data usage every month, too, so you don’t experience your ISP data throttling.
Information for Renters
Renters will sometimes be locked into purchasing a connection from a specific provider by their landlord. These ISP-landlord agreements are technically illegal, but renters have few options to pursue when choosing a provider in this predicament. One option is to ask about installing a less expensive fixed wireless solution, but these situations often necessitate seeking the best deals available for that specific provider.
In 2022, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced a plan that prohibits ISPs from entering into exclusive revenue sharing agreements with landlords. The rules also force ISPs to disclose any exclusive marketing arrangements they have with landlords to tenants residing in their buildings. Renters who’ve been struggling with finding affordable and reliable internet can finally rest easy knowing that the FCC has implemented these rules.
Avenues for Assistance
Many major ISPs offer plans that cater directly to people on a fixed income. These services offer discounted service but can still be a little out of reach for those on a budget. They often also require eligibility for government assistance. The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), which replaced the Emergency Broadband Benefit, continues its purpose of providing a monthly discount on broadband internet for eligible households. Find more information on eligibility in our report on the ACP.
Another option is a government subsidy. These plans often offer slower internet connections, but they’re some of the most affordable.
What Are the Best Internet Options for Low-Income Families?
There are a surprising number of plans from major providers that offer internet for low-income families without requiring you to apply for a specific program.
Keep in mind that these plans may not be available in 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 it stands out with its bundled services. If you’re looking to purchase high-speed internet with excellent TV service, Xfinity may be your best option.
View Xfinity Internet deals.
Spectrum’s cheapest plan is more expensive than what you’ll find with Xfinity, but a key advantage it offers is plans without data caps or contracts. When your income is limited, the ability to cancel service at will may justify the slightly more expensive monthly cost.
Spectrum’s most affordable plan is fast enough to cover HD streaming, making it an excellent option for people who are willing to shell out a little extra each month for a speedy, contract-free connection.
View Spectrum Internet deals.
Verizon Fios provides some of the fastest speeds on the market with no contracts and unlimited data on its plans.
Fios isn’t the cheapest option, but the combination of fast speeds, no contracts, and no data caps makes Verizon worth a look.
CenturyLink is one of the most accessible providers in the U.S. for service in rural areas. The DSL speeds generally don’t compete with cable and fiber providers and CenturyLink’s own fiber service is only marginally faster than DSL, but it’s a reliable (and sometimes the only) option for people who live far from a city.
DSL service is available to the majority of the U.S. due to preexisting infrastructure, but HughesNet satellite service has an even wider range. HughesNet remains one of the top satellite providers despite slightly slower speeds.
View HughesNet Internet deals.
Low-Income Assistance Plans From Major Internet Providers
The programs below are designed to provide accessible pricing for people on fixed incomes. If you can’t find information for your specific provider, a phone call to customer support will often get you information about the company’s assistance program.
The AT&T Access program offers basic internet service for low-income families. With speeds up to 100 Mbps for $30 per month, it’s a viable way to stay connected for basic web browsing.
Access is available for families approved for the ACP. If your household doesn’t qualify, AT&T internet deals are generally the lowest consumer-grade option for home internet. Keep in mind that DSL speeds from AT&T are usually slower than cable for streaming video.
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 buy a plan for just $9.95 per month. The service also includes free in-home Wi-Fi and it’s available without a credit check.
One unique perk is the ability for customers to purchase a subsidized laptop or desktop computer for $149.99, which is less expensive than what you’d find in a store or online. Depending on the computer you choose, it may include Microsoft Office and Google Docs plus Google Play Store.
To be eligible for the Internet Essentials program, you must have at least one child eligible for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and meet many other criteria.
Spectrum Internet Assist
Spectrum Internet Assist functions similarly to the Comcast program and requires families to have a child eligible for the NSLP. The service offers a free modem and a 30 Mbps connection. Wi-Fi costs $5 extra per month with this plan.
To apply for Spectrum Internet Assist, visit the Spectrum Assist website.
Cox Low-Cost Internet is integrated with the Connect2Compete program, which is aimed at helping K-12 students get access to affordable internet. The program costs $9.95 per month, and it’s available to families with a child in kindergarten or grades one to 12.
To be eligible for Cox Low-Cost Internet, your family must participate in a government assistance program like SNAP, NSLP, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or Public Housing.
Visit the Cox Low-Cost Internet website to apply for assistance.
Mediacom is another major ISP that participates in the Connect2Compete program. It offers high-speed internet service for $9.95 per month for speeds up to 25 Mbps or $30 per month for speeds up to 100 Mbps to families with at least one child in a free or reduced-cost lunch program.
Learn more on the Mediacom Connect2Compete website.
The Lifeline Network
Lifeline is a government subsidy program that connects low-income families with discounts from many major providers. To qualify for assistance through Lifeline, you must have an income at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty level or participate in one of the following programs:
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
- Federal public housing assistance (Section 8)
Tribal lands communities also have special considerations that afford eligibility for Lifeline:
- Any of the federal assistance programs listed above
- Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
- Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
- Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
- Head Start (provided income eligibility criteria are met)
To determine whether you’re eligible for assistance through Lifeline, use the official eligibility screener.
Internet Providers Participating in Lifeline
Other Options for Affordable Internet Service
There are many assistance programs and nonprofits — along with low-income providers and government subsidy programs — that work to make the internet more accessible.
Human-I-T is a nonprofit that works to bridge the digital divide and reduce e-waste. For low-income families that are part of the Lifeline program, Human-I-T provides affordable connections and a free Chromebook (while supplies last) in select California zip codes. The Chromebook is not available in every area, and you can check your eligibility 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-I-T website.
PCs for People
PCs for People offers low-cost internet to individuals with an income under 200 percent of the federal poverty line or who are on income-based assistance programs. It offers high-speed, unlimited 4G LTE internet service for as low as $15 per month, and it’s available nationwide. PCs for People also offers services beyond internet connections, such as discounts on refurbished PCs that are available online or in one of its stores.
For details on plans and pricing, visit the PCs for People low-cost internet page.
Community Mesh Networks
Most of the solutions above focus on reducing costs with a traditional ISP, but what if you could bypass the ISP altogether? A community mesh network is a collection of access points concentrated locally that communicate with one another to transmit data. These mesh networks are often — but not always — connected to the internet and represent a grassroots approach to making internet service more accessible and affordable.
To see if a community mesh network is available in your area, take a look at the compilation of known mesh networks in the U.S. If a mesh network isn’t available in your area, it’s 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.
Although it’s not a charity, nonprofit group EveryoneOn is an excellent resource for learning more about affordable internet connections.
Things Fixed-Income Customers Need to Know
The resources above should put you on the path 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 increase over time. All it takes is a call to your ISP to negotiate the terms of your plan and keep your prices affordable.
- ISPs aren’t always upfront with the details of their pricing, so it’s important to read the fine print to uncover any additional charges. An early termination fee can break the bank if you’re not careful, so either keep your service for the entirety of your contract or set money aside if your plan has that clause.
- Making smart decisions about how you approach technology can lead to serious savings. Consider over-the-air television or 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’re over 65, a call to customer service could lead to a significant price reduction. It’s also important that you understand the best internet services for seniors, who often use the internet for more limited functions such as email instead of work or streaming video.
Is Internet Service for Low-Income Individuals Available Near Me?
Some low-income internet programs are available nationwide, but many are based on location. The tool at the top of this page will show you 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 operate directly through the company.
- If you’re on public assistance, then you may be able to access low-cost internet service by reaching out to the programs you already participate in. The professionals associated with these services often have valuable information on other ways to cut costs.
- Evaluate all your options. On a limited budget, a savings of even $5 or $10 per month may make a big difference.
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