This Guidebook describes affordable broadband plans for disadvantaged American households offered by commercial internet providers (or in two cases, nonprofit resellers of a commercial service). Some offer very inexpensive plans for families with school children enrolled in the Federal school lunch subsidy program. Others offer similar cheap connectivity to low-income veterans, seniors living on Supplemental Security Income, public housing residents, households enrolled in Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, or clients of nonprofit organizations including digital inclusion programs. They include cable modem, DSL and fixed wireless service, at a variety of rates from $5 to $15 a month and a range of download speeds from 768 Kbps to 30 Mbps.
Of course these deep-discount Internet opportunities are limited to eligible consumers who live in specific geographies -- i.e., the service areas of the companies that offer them.
None of these broadband discount plans existed eight years ago. Most date to actions by the Federal Communications Commission during the Obama Administration. Some are required by temporary agreements made in merger cases, and may end when the underlying agreements run out. Others are voluntary and open-ended.
Taken together, these plans should create an opportunity for many millions of low-income Americans, in communities across the country, to get reasonably fast access to the Internet at a very affordable cost. In most communities they represent the only such opportunity.
But eligible households, and the communities where they live, must be aware of the opportunity and how to take advantage of it.
The number of households actually subscribed to these plans is not publicly available. Only one provider reports its program's annual enrollment numbers. Most refuse to make this information public, treating it as a trade secret. Providers who are required to report their participation totals to the FCC have successfully petitioned to have it redacted in public versions of those reports.
NDIA and Public Knowledge are certain the enrollment totals fall far short of the millions of households that could be benefiting.
To take one important example: Discount broadband is now being offered by all four of the nation's biggest cable providers -- Comcast, Charter, Cox and Altice -- to families in their service areas whose children receive free or reduced-cost school lunches. The service territories of these four companies include about 120 million of the nation's 126 million homes.
22 million children participated in the federal free-or-reduced lunch program in 20171; the program doesn't report the number of families those children represent, but it must be at least ten or twelve million households. Comcast Internet Essentials, the oldest and biggest of the four cable discount programs -- and the only one to report its results -- has connected between 1 and 1.5 million of them. It's very unlikely that Charter, Cox and Altice together account for even a fifth of Comcast's total.
So that leaves at least 8 to 9 million eligible low-income families, almost all in those providers' service areas, who could be receiving discount cable modem service but are not.
The underutilization of available deep-discount broadband programs is a major concern for digital inclusion practitioners and advocates, and should be for policymakers in general. Home broadband cost has long been recognized as one of the key barriers to digital inclusion, and that's even more true in 2018, with commercial ISPs in most markets now charging $60, $70 or more per month for the most modest home connections2.
Reliable information about these programs -- who's eligible and where, what they cost, what they provide, how to apply, and the practical experiences of getting people enrolled -- is a vital resource for digital inclusion programs and strategies. In many cases, NDIA affiliates and others around the country have found this vital information difficult to come by, and even more difficult to verify.
That's why NDIA and Public Knowledge have collaborated to create this Guidebook.
This guidebook has a twofold purpose. It is a practical guide for digital inclusion practitioners -- local community-based organizations, libraries, housing authorities, government agencies and others working directly with community members in need of affordable home broadband service. This guidebook also contains recommendations for policy makers and internet service providers to improve current offers and establish new offers.
- United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service. (n.d.). Overview Retrieved from: https://www.fns.usda.gov/pd/overview (Back to text)
- National Digital Inclusion Alliance. (July 31, 2018). Tier Flattening: AT&T and Verizon Home Customers Pay a High Price for Slow Internet. Retrieved from: https://www.digitalinclusion.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/NDIA-Tier-Flattening-July-2018.pdf (Back to text)