OPINION | GEOFFREY A. FOWLER: Get in on fed-funded Internet service

Washington wants to pick up the tab for tens of millions of Americans' Internet connections. That may include yours.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit, or EBB, was launched Wednesday to help a surprisingly wide range of people hit economically by the coronavirus pandemic. It can pay $50 every month toward the cost of your Internet service, and is available to all families who lost some income in the last year and earn less than $198,000.

But there's a catch. You can get the EBB discount on your home Internet or cellphone bill only if you sign up. So many people are applying that the government's website to prove eligibility went down for some people on Wednesday morning.

Lawmakers authorized the EBB in December as part of a $2 trillion coronavirus aid package. Now the Federal Communications Commission has the program up and running in every state and territory with more than 875 Internet service providers, or ISPs.

For many, the EBB discount may make going online totally free. The money goes straight to your ISP, which will deduct it from your bill every month until six months after the pandemic is officially over--or, more likely, until the program runs out of money.

Many, many Americans are eligible for a range of reasons, so many that not even the FCC has been able to figure out exactly how many people the EBB could affect or how long the money will last.

I went through the application process with some of the largest U.S. ISPs. For most, signing up is a two-part process of proving eligibility to the government, then telling an ISP that you want the discount.

It involves uploading (or physically mailing) some documents, but the FCC says the process shouldn't take more than 10 minutes. And it's even simpler for families already enrolled in a low-income broadband program.

Here are the EBB basics and my advice on how to avoid some complications.

How much money can you get from the EBB?

There's $50 per month off the price of a broadband connection per family, with the money coming straight off your Internet bill, not through a rebate check or through your taxes. You can apply it to a home Internet connection or wireless cellphone bill, but not both in the same household.

Not all Internet plans are eligible, particularly ultrafast ones. Technically, you can't use the EBB to pay for cable TV or voice service, but if you've got an Internet bundle package that includes one of those, your provider could apply the EBB to the part that pays for Internet.

If your bill is less than $50, you won't get to pocket what's left over from the EBB.

The EBB benefit increases to $75 per month for families that live in tribal areas. And there's an additional one-time $100 discount available for people who purchase new equipment such as a laptop or a tablet through a participating company.

Who can get the EBB?

The FCC has a "Do I Qualify" page at GetEmergencyBroadband.org, but eligibility boils down to three big categories:

  1. Americans who lost jobs or substantial income during the pandemic, which at the lowest point in May 2020 numbered about 50 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  2. People who receive food stamps, Medicaid, supplemental Social Security income, federal public housing assistance, have a child who qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch at school or receives a federal Pell Grant for education. You also can get it if your income is 135 percent or less than the federal poverty guidelines, which vary by household size and state.
  3. Americans who already receive subsidized or low-income Internet service, such as the FCC's Lifeline or ISP-sponsored programs such as Comcast's $10 per month Internet Essentials.

Is the EBB only open to U.S. citizens?

No. All U.S. residents can apply.

Can you get the EBB if you lost income in 2020 but got a new job in 2021?

Yes. You don't need to prove continued unemployment, but you will need to prove that your current annual income is below $99,000 for a single person or $198,000 for a family.

Is your ISP participating?

The United States has thousands of ISPs, some serving particular counties or ZIP codes, and none is required to participate. GetEmergencyBroadband.org links to a page where you can look up by ZIP code which companies are participating in your area.

Some of the largest wired and wireless Internet providers, including Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Charter, have dedicated pages about the program.

If your ISP isn't participating but there's another in your area that is, you can switch and still get the benefit as a new customer.

How do you sign up for the EBB?

For most, the process will begin by applying online at the website GetEmergencyBroadband.org, available in English and Spanish. The program administrator (called the Universal Service Administrative Co.) will ask you to prove your identity by sharing a Social Security number, driver's license, passport or other ID.

Then you'll have to upload copies of documents that prove your eligibility, such as a layoff notice or unemployment application and your 2020 tax returns. (You can scan them or snap a photo with your phone.)

If you don't have the capability or Internet speed to apply online, you can download and print an application, then mail it.

After you've been approved by the government's verification system, you'll need to go to your ISP and tell them. Some let you flag that online or in store, while others require you to give them a call.

Applying is easier for people already enrolled in Lifeline or programs such as Internet Essentials from Comcast. By participating in these programs, your eligibility is already verified; you just need to notify your ISP that you want to take advantage of the EBB benefit.

How do you apply for the EBB if the bill is under your roommate or partner's name?

The EBB applies to "households," which the FCC says includes "an adult who lives with friends or family who financially support him/her." When it comes time to apply, though, that has to happen in the name of the person who qualifies for the benefit. Comcast told me that if someone else in the house currently pays the monthly bill, the company might ask to change the name on the account to the person who applied for the benefit.

Can you get the EBB if you're already behind on your Internet bills?

The FCC's rules say that even if your bill is delinquent, your ISP still has to let you sign up for the EBB. You'll still have to pay your past-due bills.

Can your ISP use the EBB to play tricks with your bill?

Some ISPs might try to use this as an opportunity to upsell you on faster and more expensive service plans. For example, Verizon makes you call a phone number and speak to a rep to sign up. It wouldn't tell me whether the call would involve a sales pitch, and there aren't any rules preventing it.

I've also found a number of ISPs claiming that their older plans aren't eligible for the EBB. Technically, the rules for the EBB allow for this; they just have to make the EBB available on at least one service for low-income customers.

If you do upgrade your plan, you could be on the hook for higher monthly fees when the EBB money runs out.

What happens when the EBB money runs out?

The EBB money will flow until six months after the federal government declares an end to the coronavirus health crisis or when the money runs out, whichever comes first. The FCC says it will be watching its totals and will provide notice online when it's nearing the bottom.

Will the EBB close the U.S. digital divide?

At least 18 million Americans still lack speedy and reliable connections, the FCC found in a report released in June.

What's different about the EBB is that Congress is addressing the cost of broadband, rather than just building more physical infrastructure to rural areas, says Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports. "The bigger problem is that broadband is just too darn expensive," he says.

More questions ? Call the EBB help line at (833) 511-0311.