TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Access to affordable internet has become a bigger part of economic recovery post-pandemic. As a result, broadband service providers are partnering with the federal government to give more people a connection to the digital world. The program, which started Dec. 31, 2021, now has more options for access and connectivity.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported one in six low-income Americans did not have access to the internet. The problem of internet access gets worse in more rural areas, and among the elderly.

The Federal Communications Commission says we live “in an era when broadband is essential to innovation, jobs, and global competitiveness.” According to the FCC, about 4% Americans still do not have access to the internet, about 13.25 million residents, as of 2019. The U.S. Census Bureau reported 13% of Floridians did not have access to the internet as of 2019. The data sets are separate, adding to the time lag in years for the data.

To address the need for connectivity in the evolving job market, the federal government and various state legislatures have introduced programs to improve access to broadband as a tool for economic improvement.

One of those programs, called the Affordable Connectivity Program is paid for through an FCC initiative. The ACP is designed to “ensure that households can afford the broadband they need for work, school, healthcare and more.”

Through the benefit program, those in poverty can get a discount of $30 per month for their internet service, or up to $75 per month for households that live on Tribal Lands that qualify.

A variety of companies, including AT&T, Google Fiber and Spectrum partnered with the FCC to give poor or lower-income Americans access to broadband. Comcast, also a partner in the federal ACP, now offers two more ways for low-income residents to get free access to the internet.

According to the company, Comcast is offering a service called “Internet Essentials Plus.” The plan costs $29.95 per month, meaning the federal benefit from the ACP makes internet access free for the customers who qualify for and use the plan and benefit. However, customers with Comcast can now also add mobile service through the Xfinity Mobile plan.

With the $30 per month credit, Xfinity Mobile becomes a $25 cost every month, and provides 5G service access to customers who qualify for ACP benefits. Additionally, the mobile program has no fees for line access or activation, and comes with unlimited talk and text.

In Florida, more than 60 companies will provide broadband internet to households making at or below 200% of the federal poverty guidelines. The HHS reported 76% of all Floridians had access to the internet in some form, as of 2019. However, 18% of low-income Floridians did not.

For individuals making $13,590 or less or a family of four earning $27,750, getting connected will be cheaper, or free.

As of 2019 when full data was last available, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 12.7% of Florida lived in poverty. By county, the number fluctuates. In Citrus County, 15.2% of the county lived in poverty in 2019. Hardee County’s rate was higher at 22.1%, as were Hillsborough, Highlands, and Polk counties (13.5%, 15.8%, 14%).

These are the same Florida residents who would qualify for programs like the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance ProgramMedicaid, who receive Federal Public Housing AssistanceSupplemental Security IncomeSpecial Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, or Lifeline are all eligible. Those in Tribal programs like the Bureau of Indian Affairs General AssistanceTribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or Food Distribution Programs on Indian Reservations also qualify.

The Pew Research Center found differences in online access created what they call a “homework gap” and affected educational outcomes. The gap in technology access has been a problem for years, according to Pew. The pandemic’s economic and educational challenges brought those gaps into sharper focus, adding an impetus for politicians to get students back to in-person learning.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, as large swathes of students shifted to virtual learning thanks to lockdowns, internet access became more crucial for community and education. That’s the belief of the FCC as well.

“With many jobs, schools, and healthcare services shifting to virtual environments in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the need to deliver broadband connectivity across America has never been greater,” the FCC said in its 14th annual Broadband Deployment Report.

You can check your eligibility for the ACP and apply for the benefit online or send in a print application. Then, contact your preferred internet service provider to get the discounts applied to your monthly bills.