Your selection of cheap internet options may get much broader. On January 31, 2012 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved what we call Lifeline Internet, a major expansion of the popular government’s free cell phone program. A year later in January 2013, as the FCC issued cost-saving reforms for the fraud-ridden Lifeline free cell phone program, they took part of those savings and created the Broadband Pilot Program in order to test how the best way to give free or heavily discounted internet to low-income Americans.
Lifeline is the granddaddy of government programs designed to bring state-of-the-art communications tools to low income Americans. The program was originally designed to offer affordable rates on landline telephones. It was expanded to include cell phones in 1996 and the number of users has grown dramatically each year. In February 2012, Time Magazine estimated that 12.5 million people now participate in the Lifeline free cell phone program. It’s likely closer to 15 million now.
Lifeline Internet is on the way
But cell phones can’t provide all the help people need so much these days. What the financially-strapped in this country need most is high-speed broadband — to help them search for jobs, find services and especially to help their kids do well in school. The FCC commissioners have come to the same, obvious conclusion that we reached long ago: Internet access has grown so important, and yet so expensive, that Lifeline should be expanded to include internet access. So, savings from the Lifeline reforms will help to pay for an expansion into offering broadband to low-income people.
Details are still being worked out by the FCC, with a $13.8 million dollar pilot program running in 21 states and Puerto Rico. They are testing a myriad of offers to see to which plan people best respond. Lucky participants have been chosen from current Lifeline phone participants in the states of Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio Texas, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin, plus Puerto Rico.
It’s hard to say exactly what the plan cost or offer at this time. All sort of combinations of pricing, speed, equipment and training offers are being experimented with in 2013, with both DSL, cable and mobile Internet. Among them:
- In Alabama, Troy Cablevision is offering a $14 and a $28 subsidy off a wireline broadband plan. Cable Internet.
- In Arizona, Gila River is testing subsidy amounts ($23.24 to $38.24), access to discounted equipment and broadband speeds. DSL.
- In California, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada and New Jersey. Nexus is testing subsidies of $0, $15 and $20, with varying speeds. Mobile Internet.
- In Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin, TracFone, is testing the effect of varying combinations of free or discounted hardware and $10 or $20 per month service. Mobile Internet.
- In Illinois, a consortium of telephone companies are testing a $30 flat rate subsidy for 12 months, with price based on speed, as well as intensive digital literacy training being included or not. DSL.
- In Iowa, (Alpine Communications) and New Mexico (Leaco Rural Telephone) companies are testing a range of wireline broadband plans in one state with a flat subsidy amount of $25 per month, and a range of wireline broadband plans in another state with a sliding scale subsidy. DSL.
- In New York, XChange is offering digital literacy to seniors, and is testing a range of subsidy amounts of $10, $15 and $20, by randomizing three different broadband plans priced at $4.99, $9.99 and $19.99. DSL and Fixed-Wireless.
- In Ohio and West Virginia, Frontier is testing an offer of a $20 monthly subsidy in a range of plans, an offer with mandatory digital literacy participation with a $30 subsidy, and an offer of a $20 subsidy and a free computer. DSL.
- In Puerto Rico, PR Wireless is testing a $25 monthly subsidy off five different plans that have access to varying types of equipment, from modems to computers. Mobile Internet.
- In Vermont, Vermont Telephone is testing two different wireline broadband plans: one with a uniform $9.95 cost for 12 months; the second at $9.95 for the first three months, followed by a $14.95 for the remaining 9 months. DSL.
Note in how many states you see Tracfone and Nexus? Tracfone owns Safelink Wireless and Nexus owns ReachOut Wireless, two of the three biggest free government cell phone (Lifeline) companies. I think it’s safe to say that while they are testing DSL, cable and mobile internet, given the power of Tracfone and Nexus, and their established connection with the FCC, the upcoming Lifeline Internet will be mobile Internet, or at least primarily so.
How will you qualify for Lifeline Internet?
Although no official guidelines have yet been established, it is assumed that the requirements for Lifeline Internet will be identical to the requirements for the Lifeline phone program.
There are many ways to qualify for Lifeline and you will probably be eligible if:
(1) You currently participate in some other federal, state or local
assistance programs such as food stamps (SNAP), public housing, Medicaid, Section 8 housing, Supplemental Security Income, various Home Energy Assistance Programs, National School Lunch and other programs.
(2) Your household income is at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. (More good news: Residents of Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas can qualify with household incomes all the way up to 150% of Federal Poverty Guidelines.)
How much will Lifeline Internet cost?
There is no word on the charge to users, if any, for this potential new program. The current Lifeline cell phone program is free, but then offering cell phone service on very cheap cell phones is considerably less expensive than offering mobile Internet on smartphones like Androids. It all depends upon how much the FCC is willing to reimburse the providers.
Our guess is that a very basic plan will be anywhere from free to $9.95 a month, for unlimited phone and text, and maybe 1 to 2 GB of data usage a month. But that’s only a guess.
When will Lifeline Internet be available?
Like we said, the FCC just recently approved Lifeline Internet and they are in the midst of the Broadband Pilot Program to see which plan is most favored by participants in the study. When they determine that, unless congress gets in the way, we assume it will begin to be rolled out shortly thereafter. Since they are testing both DSL and Mobile Internet, and Lifeline already covers both landline telephone (upon which DSL is based) and cell phones (upon which Mobile Internet is based), it may be an an effortless transition.
If you are having a hard time understanding all the various programs (we know it’s confusing!), please read our help page.
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