The term broadband refers to “always connected” high-speed Internet access, defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as a minimum of 25 megabits per second (25 Mbps) download speed and three megabits per second (3 Mbps) upload speed.

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 those, often in rural and impoverished parts of the country, who lack that access. This gap, known as the digital divide, is the subject of government and private programs designed to make Internet access and tools more affordable to everyone.

Key Takeaways

  • Broadband Internet refers to continuously connected high-speed Internet access.
  • The four main types of broadband are DSL, fiber-optic, cable, and satellite.
  • Depending on where you live, not all four types of broadband may be available.
  • Lack of high-speed Internet has exacerbated the access gap, known as the digital divide, that many people in rural or impoverished areas experience.
  • Broadband Internet can be expensive, especially in areas where access is limited.
  • Government and private programs are available to provide assistance if you qualify.
  • A new federal program called Emergency Broadband Benefit provides significant help to those who can’t otherwise afford high-speed Internet access.

Why You Need Broadband

The original way to access the Internet was through a dial-up connection, obtained by dialing a number on your phone line and connecting your 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 speed that’s almost useless for anything except retrieving email.

According to the FCC, students and those who work from home (telecommuters) require 5 to 25 Mbps download speed at a minimum. The digital divide exists because, in many areas, those download speeds are either not available or unaffordable.

Four Main Types of Broadband

The four main types of broadband are DSL, fiber-optic, cable, and satellite. Each has advantages and disadvantages, but all are many times faster than dial-up.

  • DSL (Digital Subscriber Line), like dial-up, uses phone lines but at download speeds up to about 115 Mbps. Since DSL uses phone lines, it is widely available, even in rural areas.
  • Fiber-optic uses tiny glass and plastic (fiber optic) lines to transmit data at speeds up to 1 gigabit per second (1 Gbps). Unfortunately, availability is limited.
  • Cable Internet uses coaxial cables, from a cable service provider, and transmits at speeds up to 1 Gbps (although 100+ Mbps is more common). Cable Internet is widely available except in rural areas.
  • Satellite has one huge advantage over all other types in that it is available to you no matter where you live. The satellite signal is beamed down to Earth (and your computer or smart device) from a satellite. Satellite download speeds are typically lower than other broadband types, around 25 Mbps.

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 who your ISP is. Fortunately, most areas have multiple options, depending on the speed that you need and the price that you are willing or able to pay.

Two tools can help you find out what’s available where you are:

  • 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 generates a list of ISPs that also includes maximum speeds and prices.

Not all ISPs listed for your ZIP code may offer service to your address. You may have to call or visit the website to find out.

Average Broadband Costs

Generally speaking, the higher the broadband speed, the higher the cost. Other factors come into play as well, including connection type (DSL, cable, etc.), and your location.

On average, the monthly cost of DSL service is about $50. For a little higher average—$52 per month—you can get cable Internet, which offers higher speeds than DSL. Fiber Internet, with the highest speeds available, averages just under $60 per month. Note, however, that fiber is limited and may not be available where you live. If you live in an area not serviced by other providers, including DSL, then your only option might be satellite, with slower download speeds and an average cost of $123 per month.

Programs to Help Pay Your Broadband Bill

Fortunately, there are both government and ISP-sponsored programs designed to make Internet service more affordable for those who qualify. These programs are a big part of efforts to combat the digital divide discussed earlier.

New Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB)

This temporary federal program, which opened for enrollment on May 12, 2021, provides a monthly discount of up to $50 to $75 for households that qualify. It also grants a one-time discount of up to $100 toward a new laptop, desktop, or tablet purchased from participating providers.

To qualify for EBB, at least one member of your household must meet one of the following criteria:

  • Qualify for Lifeline, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Veterans Affairs (VA) Survivors Pension benefits, or selected tribal programs
  • Have an income at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines
  • Have participated in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the School Breakfast Program (SBP), or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) during the 2019–2020 or 2020–2021 school year
  • Receive a federal Pell Grant during the current award year
  • Have suffered a substantial loss of income since Feb. 29, 2020, resulting in a total 2020 income below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers
  • Be eligible for a participating ISP’s own existing low-income or COVID-19 program

To apply, do one of the following:

  • Contact a participating broadband provider directly to learn about its application process.
  • Go to GetEmergencyBroadband.org to apply online and find participating providers near you.
  • Call 833-511-0311 for a mail-in application, and return it along with required documents to the provided address.

The EBB program will end six months after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declares an end to the pandemic, or if the program runs out of funds.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program can be used in conjunction with any eligible plan offered by any participating ISP, meaning that if you also qualify for a discounted plan (below), then your EBB discount can be applied to that plan.

Lifeline

Lifeline is a government program backed by the FCC. It provides a monthly phone or Internet service discount of $9.25 ($34.95 per month for households in tribal lands).

There are two ways to qualify for Lifeline:

  • If your income is 135% of the federal poverty guidelines or less, then you can qualify for Lifeline assistance.
  • If you or someone in your household participates in one of the following programs—SNAP, SSI, VA Survivors Pension benefits, FPHA, Medicaid, and Tribal Programs for Native Americans—then you may qualify.

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 must choose among a phone, Internet, or bundled service subsidy.

Altice Advantage Internet

Cable service provider Altice runs the Optimum and Suddenlink ISPs. Customers with access to either one can sign up for Altice Advantage Internet, which offers Internet speeds up to 30 Mbps for $14.99 per month.

To qualify:

  • Households must have a student in K–12 and/or college who has been displaced or impacted by the COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic and does not have Internet access at home.
  • Seniors must be age 65 or older and eligible for—or receiving—SSI.
  • Veterans must be receiving state or federal public assistance.

To apply, contact your Optimum or Suddenlink ISP.

AT&T Access

AT&T’s Access program offers Internet speeds up to 10 Mbps for $5 to $10 per month if you qualify. To be eligible for Access, your household must participate in SNAP. According to AT&T, the Access program offers free installation, no annual contract, and no deposit. Apply through the AT&T Access website.

Xfinity Internet Essentials

Xfinity’s Internet Essentials program lets you purchase a plan for just $9.95 per month. The program is designed to help students, seniors, and low-income families. Broadband Internet speeds up to 25 Mbps and free in-home Wi-Fi with no credit check are features of the program.

Xfinity also offers a laptop or desktop computer for $149 that includes Microsoft Office, Norton Security Suite, and a 90-day warranty.

To qualify, a member of your household must:

  • Qualify for a listed program such as the NSLP, housing assistance, Medicaid, SNAP, SSI, and others listed on the application
  • Live in an area where Comcast Internet service is available
  • Have not had Comcast Internet in the last 90 days

Apply on the Internet Essentials website.

Spectrum Internet Assist

Spectrum offers an Internet Assist program similar to Xfinity’s Internet Essentials, but with speeds up to 30 Mbps for $14.99 per month for 12 months, with no data cap and no contract. You can qualify for Internet Assist provided that one member of your household is a recipient of at least one of the following:

  • The NSLP
  • The CEP
  • SSI (ages 65 and older).

You can apply online; by downloading, completing, and mailing an application; or by contacting your local Spectrum office.