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Applications now open for program to help low-income families afford broadband

The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will provide a discount on monthly broadband services to qualifying low-income households.

MAINE, USA — Getting access to reliable Internet at home has been a challenge for many Mainers for years, whether it be because of cost or few to none provider options. As a result of the global pandemic, the digital divide has been brought to greater light -- and steps are happening to take action.

As of Wednesday, May 12, applications for the new, temporary Emergency Broadband Benefit Program are open via the Federal Communications Commission. This $3.2 billion program is designed to give qualifying low-income households a temporary discount on monthly broadband bills in an effort to alleviate some of the financial pressure that burdens families, making it difficult to have this basic need.

This program will provide an up to $50 per month discount on broadband services and equipment rentals. That rate increases to $75 per month, if the household is on qualifying tribal lands. It also includes a one-time discount of up to $100 for the purchase of a laptop, tablet, or desktop computer -- with a copayment of more than $10 but less than $50. Only one service discount and one device discount is allowed per household.

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To apply, people can visit getemergencybroadband.org. From there, they'll be able to find out if they're eligible, determine the best way to submit an application, and find participating providers near them. A list of participating providers in Maine is here. Once your name is entered in the FCC system, you can reach out to a provider near you to set up services. 

Those who qualify include households at or below 135 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, as well as people who:

  • Qualify for Lifeline benefits through SNAP, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, Federal Public Housing Assistance, or Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit.
  • Participate in one of several Tribal specific programs.
  • Have experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020, with a total household income of $99,000 or below for single filers and $198,000 or below or joint filers.
  • Received a Pell Grant in the current award year. 
  • Received approval for benefits under the school lunch or school breakfast program.
  • Meet criteria for a participating provider's existing low-income or COVID-19 program, as long as that provider has received approval per the FCC.

"The digital divide is people who just don't have access to high-quality broadband at home," Michael Forcillo, the executive vice president of Redzone Wireless, said about the significance of this program, noting he believes it will help "thousand and thousands" of Mainers. "Our experience is people oftentimes discuss (the divide) because they say they don't have access to Internet, and the state would like to build more and more broadband networks and put a lot of money into that -- but the truth is that most people that don't have Internet in Maine don't have it because they can't afford it."

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This program will end when the funding runs out, or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the COVID-19 health emergency -- whichever comes first. Forcillo says it should take between 24 and 48 hours for providers to set up services after a household applies. 

Beth Lambert, the director of innovative teaching and learning for the Maine Department of Education, says she thinks this program is going to be essential in Maine -- especially in a time when having stable Internet is long longer a luxury but a necessity. 

"The world is more connected than ever and will continue to be that way," Lambert said, talking about the Internet's importance to modern-day learning. "New, relevant resources are being created in the digital world, in the digital media. That's where the investments are being made, and so students need to be able to access that when they're not in the school, so they can continue their learning, continue their engagement."

RELATED: Maine Gov. Janet Mills, Congressional Delegation, state leaders welcome final passage of COVID-19 relief bill

Applying for broadband assistance online may seem a bit contradictory. If you don't have Internet access at your home, experts recommend visiting a local resource center (like a library) for help. You can also physically mail in an application, call a broadband provider near you to get questions answered, or call 1-833-511-0311. 

RELATED: $15 billion bill would expand broadband in rural Maine, America