The term broadband refers to “always connected” high-speed internet access at data transfer rates above those afforded by telephone lines. Since 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has defined broadband as providing download speed of at least 25 megabits per second (Mbps) and a minimum upload speed of 3 Mbps, though critics have called those minimum speeds inadequate.
The lack of affordable access to broadband is a major problem in the United States. It creates a gap between those with access to high-speed internet and others, often the residents of rural and low-income areas, who lack that access. This gap, known as the digital divide, has prompted government and private programs aiming to make a fast broadband internet connection available to everyone at an affordable price.
- Broadband internet refers to "always on" high-speed internet access.
- DSL, fiber, cable, wireless, and satellite are the main broadband access technologies.
- The relatively high cost of high-speed internet access has exacerbated the so-called digital divide, which describes the inadequate internet access available to residents of many rural areas, as well as low-income households nationwide.
- Government and private programs are available to provide Internet access subsidies and discounted plans for those who qualify.
Why You Need Broadband
Early internet access relied on dial-up connections, obtained by dialing a phone number from the home landline and using a modem to connect one's computer to an internet service provider (ISP). For technical reasons, dial-up connections are limited to a top speed of 56 Kbps (kilobits per second), a rate workable these days for retrieving email but little else.
According to the FCC, students and those who work from home (telecommuters) require download speeds of 5 to 25 Mbps at a minimum. The digital divide exists because, in many areas, such download speeds are either not available or unaffordable.
Main Types of Broadband
Broadband delivery technologies include the digital subscriber line (DSL), cable modem, fiber, satellite, wireless, and broadband over powerlines (BPL). Each has advantages and disadvantages, but all are many times faster than dial-up.
- DSL (digital subscriber line), like dial-up, uses phone landlines at download speeds up to about 115 Mbps. Since DSL relies on phone lines, it is widely available even in rural areas.
- Cable internet uses coaxial cable from a cable service provider and delivers download speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second (Gbps), although 100+ Mbps is more common. Cable internet is widely available except in rural areas.
- Fiber uses tiny glass and plastic (fiber optic) lines to transmit data at speeds of up to 1 Gbps). Unfortunately, availability is limited.
- Satellite has one huge advantage over all other types in that it is available no matter where you live. The internet is beamed to your computer or smart device from a satellite. Unfortunately, satellite download speeds are much slower than for other broadband types, maxing out at about 25 Mbps. However, they are improving significantly and, even at that rate, comfortably outperform dial-up.
- Wireless internet users deploy a home antenna to link a home computer's router to a cell tower, providing speeds of up to about 25 Mbps in most cases. The service was available in about half of the U.S. as of 2020.
- Broadband over powerlines delivers speeds comparable to cable modems through the electricity provider's wires. Because the electric grid is widespread, broadband over powerlines shares the advantage off satellite and wireless of wide access for a low up-front investment. It is an emerging technology with extremely limited availability.
Availability of Broadband Internet Where You Live
Aside from satellite—which, as noted, is available anywhere—availability of other types of broadband depends on where you live and the availability of service providers. Fortunately, most areas have multiple options, depending on the speed you need and the price you are willing or able to pay.
Two tools can help you find out what’s available in your area:
- The FCC Fixed Broadband Deployment website lets you plug in your ZIP code or address to generate a list of broadband providers, the type of broadband offered, and the speeds available.
- The Broadband Search website asks for your ZIP code and then generates a list of prices and maximum speeds available in your area.
Not all ISPs listed for your ZIP code may serve your address. You may have to call or visit a service provider's website to find out if the service is available where you live.
Average Broadband Costs
Generally speaking, the higher the broadband speed, the higher the cost. Other factors come into play as well, including the connection type (DSL, cable, etc.) and your location.
According to Reviews.org, the average monthly cost of internet connections in 2021 was $51, $51, $64, and $86, for DSL, cable, fiber, and satellite respectively. Generally, fiber is the fastest option, though its availability is limited, particularly in rural areas. Those living in remote locations may have no choice but to opt for satellite, even though it offers significantly slower download speeds and costs more.
Programs to Help Pay Your Broadband Bill
Fortunately, government as well as ISPs sponsor programs designed to make internet service more affordable for those who qualify. These programs are a big part of the effort to eliminate the digital divide discussed earlier.
In November 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden signed into law the historic $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. In addition to providing funds for roads, power grids, water supply, and so forth, the ambitious bipartisan legislation also set aside $65 billion to improve internet access in rural areas and among low-income families.
From that pot, $2.75 billion will go for digital literacy training, $42.5 billion to supply high-speed internet to unserved areas, and $14.2 billion to the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP).
The Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP)
At the end of 2021, the ACP replaced the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program, enacted as a temporary COVID-19 pandemic relief measure to help low-income households pay for internet access.
In contrast with the EBB, the ACP is a long-term program offering smaller monthly subsidies. It provides up to $30 per month toward qualifying households' internet bills, less than the monthly payment of up to $50 from EBB. The maximum monthly benefit for households located on tribal lands remained at $75.
How to Get Broadband for Free
In May 2022, the Biden administration announced commitments from 20 broadband providers including AT&T, Comcast, Spectrum, and Verizon to offer ACP-eligible households high-speed internet plans with download speeds of at least 100 Mbps for no more than $30 per month, making them free with the maximum ACP subsidy. It also launched a new website with information about those plans and instructions for qualifying for ACP at GetInternet.gov.
To qualify for ACP, households must meet any one of the following criteria:
- Have income of no more than 200% of the federal poverty level (EBB was set at 135%)
- Receive benefits from one of the following federal assistance programs: Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA), or Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit
- Be enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program or the school breakfast program
- Receive a federal Pell Grant during the current award year
- Live on tribal lands and participate in Bureau of Indian Affairs general assistance, Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, or, on an income basis, Tribal Head Start.
ACP applications may be filed online at AffordableConnectivity.gov, sent in by mail, or made through one's service provider if the provider participates in the program.
While more than 11.5 million households had signed up to participate in ACP by May 2022, the Biden administration estimated 48 million households—nearly 40% of the U.S. total—are eligible to receive the benefit.
Lifeline is another government program backed by the FCC. It provides a monthly phone or internet service discount of up to $9.25 (up to $34.25 per month for households on tribal lands).
There are two ways to qualify for Lifeline:
- If your income is 135% or less of the federal poverty level
- If you or someone in your household participates in one of the following programs: SNAP, SSI, Veterans and Survivors Pension benefits, FPHA, Medicaid, and Tribal Programs for Native Americans
If you qualify, choose a participating provider in your area and sign up. You’ll have to provide proof of eligibility and renew your Lifeline subscription every year. You also must choose between a phone, internet, or bundled service subsidy.
If you qualify for Lifeline, you automatically qualify for the ACP and can receive both benefits at the same time.
Low-Income Internet Options
Several ISPs also offer broadband plans specifically for low-income households. To qualify for one of these attractively priced deals, you'll need to be eligible for, or a recipient of, a specific government assistance program.
Below you'll find a list of some low-income internet plans currently on the market:
Optimum Advantage Internet
Cable service provider Altice runs the Optimum and Suddenlink ISPs. Customers with access to either one can sign up for Optimum Advantage Internet, which was previously known as Altice Advantage Internet and offers internet speeds of up to 50 Mbps for $14.99 per month.
To qualify, applicants must meet one of the following criteria:
- Live in a household with a student that qualifies or participates in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) or a New York resident attending a New York City public school
- Be age 65 or older and eligible for—or receiving—Supplemental Security Income
- Be a veteran receiving state or federal public assistance
The Optimum Online plan offering download speeds of up to 100 Mbps was available for $30 per month, making it free after the ACP subsidy.
AT&T’s Access program has been upgraded to offer speeds of up to 100 Mbps (from 25 Mbps previously) for $30, the amount of the monthly ACP subsidy.
AT&T is also continuing to offer Access plans with speeds of 10 Mbps or less for as little as $5 per month.
Xfinity Internet Essentials
Xfinity’s Internet Essentials program lets ACP recipients purchase a plan with speeds of up to 50 Mbps for just $9.95 per month, or to bundle that Internet access with a mobile phone line for $24.95 per month before fees and taxes. You can also apply for Internet Essentials Plus, which offers 100 Mbps for $29.95 per month.
Apply on the Internet Essentials website.
Spectrum Internet Assist
Spectrum's ACP plan offers customers download speeds of up to 100 Mbps for $30 per month for two years as a promotional rate, after which standard rates apply.
The Internet Assist program offers speeds up to 30 Mbps for $14.99 per month for new customers with household members enrolled in the national school lunch program or eligible for it because the live in a low-income community, as well those 65 and older receiving Supplemental Security Income (which is not the same as Social Security benefits).
How Can I Get Free Broadband Internet?
Low-income households may qualify under the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) for subsidies of $30 a month, which can cover the full cost (in some cases before taxes and fees) of high-speed internet access from 20 providers, which together serve areas with 80% of the U.S. population.
How Much Is the Average Internet Bill Per Month?
Internet costs vary depending on your location, required speed and connection type, and competition in the market. The average monthly cost of internet connections in 2021 was $51, $51, $64, and $86 for DSL, cable, fiber-optic, and satellite respectively, by one estimate.
Why Is Broadband So Expensive?
The cost of getting high-speed internet into our homes can be high and these costs are often passed from the provider to the consumer. High-speed broadband access costs considerably less in the European Union, where the industry is more heavily regulated.