How to Get Free and Low-Cost Internet
People in the US have uneven access to the internet, a problem that was made much more apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. What do you do if you don’t have access to good speeds where you live? What if you can’t afford any of the providers that are available in your area? And what if no major ISPs offer service where you live?
Long-term solutions to these problems are complicated; however, there are multiple ways to get internet access completely free of charge or at a reduced cost. These can be important not only during a global crisis, but also during any type of financial stress. We’ll walk you through them.
Which internet service providers offer no-cost internet access?
Many internet service providers (ISPs) have programs for helping low-income families. This number increased during the COVID-19 outbreak, when many more joined the FCC’s Keep Americans Connected initiative, which asked companies to continue service, waive fees, and make their Wi-Fi hotspots publicly available. Although the FCC’s initiative has ended, many ISPs still offer programs for those in need of low-cost and no-cost internet connections.
How to get no-cost Altice Suddenlink and Altice Optimum internet
New Altice customers can sign up for the Altice Advantage 30 Mbps broadband plan free of charge for 60 days. This offer is available for families with any K–12 or college students in their household and is available for any area that Altice serves, both in the Optimum region and the Suddenlink region. Altice has extended this offer to the end of the school year.1
How to get no-cost HBC Internet
HBC has suspended disconnections due to failure to pay along with waiving late fees. This offer has been extended beyond the original deadline of the FCC pledge, but no end date has been announced.2,3 HBC offers programs for low-income families and is also providing free broadband internet service for two months for eligible low-income households through its Temporary Free Internet Assistance Program (COVID-19). This offer is available for both new and existing residential internet customers in the HBC service area who participate in the following programs:
- NSLP (National School Lunch Program)
- The Telephone Assistance Program (TAP)
How to get low-cost Comcast Xfinity Internet
Xfinity’s Internet Essentials program is available for $9.95 for those who qualify, which is an incredible value. Comcast has also increased the speed available to the Internet Essentials program in response to the pandemic, a change which will be permanent.4
Comcast also offers teachers who sign up for Xfinity a $150 Visa® Prepaid Card to help offset the cost of the first few months of service. This offer is available until June 30, 2021.
How to get low-cost AT&T Internet
AT&T is offering free data plans for certain school-issued tablets for 60 days and creating a $10 million fund to support distance learning. It has also started plans for offering free telehealth services for 60 days to business customers like hospitals. AT&T is offering special deals to first responders, including offering free smartphones with their unlimited plan.
The AT&T Access program is available for low-income families who participate in SNAP or receive SSI benefits in California. In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, AT&T has expanded the eligibility for its Access program, pushing the cap to 135% of federal poverty guidelines and including families that participate in the the following programs:
- NSLP (National School Lunch Program)
- Head Start
To find out more about the AT&T Access program, check out our in-depth analysis of government programs for low-income families.
How to get low-cost Cox Internet
Cox offers affordable internet through the Connect2Compete program. Connect2Compete gives you access to Cox’s Internet Starter 10 plan, which provides speeds up to 10 Mbps for just $9.99 per month. After the first month, the cost goes up to $19.99* per month—and the cost goes up again at the end of the year.
To find out more about the Connect2Compete program, check out our resource on government programs for low-income families.
How to get low-cost Mediacom Internet
Like Cox, Mediacom participates in the Connect2Compete program and is noteworthy for having an even lower rate, with 25 Mbps internet access available for just $9.99* a month.
To find out more about the Connect2Compete program, read more on government programs for low-income families.
*Data as of 01/12/2021. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change.
Free Wi-Fi hotspots
In addition to expanding their programs for low-income families, many ISPs have also made Wi-Fi hotspots available in public spaces. This doesn’t affect Wi-Fi hotspots that people have set up in their own homes. It just opens up access to hotspots that ISPs set up in public areas like shopping malls, parks, and train stations that were previously available only to paying customers.
Government programs for internet service
In addition to emergency response programs offered by ISPs, there are government programs for low-income families that can make internet access more affordable. To find out more about these programs and how to apply, check out our in-depth look at government programs for free and low-cost internet.
Nongovernment programs that assist with internet access
Government programs aren’t the only way for low-income people to get assistance. Many programs by nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can help you find free or reduced-cost internet.
The EveryoneOn organization focuses on bringing internet and computer technology to low-income families and marginalized communities. It works to create social and economic opportunities by helping people obtain affordable internet service and computers, as well as delivering training programs for digital skills.
EveryoneOn offers tools for finding low-cost internet, computers, and digital literacy training locations.
PCs for People
PCs for People’s primary focus is on providing refurbished computers to low-income individuals and non-profit organizations, though internet connectivity is an important part of that mission. In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, it is now accepting Pell Grant documentation for college students affected by school closures in order to help them obtain low-cost computers and internet for virtual learning.5
Human-I-T was founded with the goal of reducing e-waste by repairing reusable technology and connecting these repurposed devices to people who need them but lack access. In addition to providing low-cost electronic devices, Human-I-T provides free resources for finding low-cost internet for those who are not connected or might be paying too much.
More ways to get free internet
If none of those programs are quite what you’re looking for, there are still other ways of finding free internet.
Back when I was in high school, NetZero was my lifeline. No one else in my family was interested in connecting to the internet, and even if I’d had money, I was too young to have a credit card, which every ISP at the time required. Fortunately, there was NetZero, which kept me connected throughout the glorious dotcom bubble days of the 1990s.
NetZero has mostly transitioned to being a normal ISP; however, it does still offer free dial-up internet access for those who are absolutely determined not to pay a dime. Dial-up’s not particularly useful for watching videos, playing online games, or even voice chat just because the speeds are so slow. Its free service will get you speeds from only 28.8 Kbps to 56 Kbps—less than 0.3% the speed of the slowest broadband connection.
Another limitation of NetZero’s free plan is that your time online is restricted to a mere 10 hours a month. Still, if you just need an internet connection to perform the absolute basics, this might be right up your alley.
Another company offering completely free internet service is FreedomPop. It boasts the world’s first 100% free mobile plan while also offering free wireless internet and free home broadband.
Its free plans reach speeds up to only 1 Mbps, and it has low data caps, so it’s not for heavy internet users. But there are lots of paid upgrades that can get you more data and speeds up to 25 Mbps.
For the highly motivated and tech-savvy users out there, a more long-term and sustainable option for free internet access is the construction of mesh networks. Mesh networks have been called “the future of free internet access,” so this won’t be the last time you hear about them.6
Setting up a community mesh network is also a much more involved and technically challenging task than simply signing up with your local ISP. Fortunately, there are lots of resources out there for getting started and plenty of mesh networks currently in operation in the US.
Mesh networks are created by connecting multiple wireless routers together in a given area. Instead of each router getting its information through the same centralized source, as you would with a traditional internet connection, the routers can get information from any of the other routers, or “nodes,” in the network that are within range.
Mesh networks do have drawbacks, especially when it comes to speed. Every hop that your data makes from router to router slows the flow of information, so in a large network, devices far from the base node can experience significant drops in speed. All that hopping from node to node also poses a lot of potential security risks.
Free internet FAQ
How do I get free high-speed internet at home?
Most of the free and low-cost internet plans offered by ISPs give you internet connections with speeds around 5 Mbps to 25 Mbps, although they are typically slower than the paid plans ISPs offer. To figure out which plans will work best for your household, find out how much speed you need.
How do I find free internet near me?
You can find free or discounted internet through many nationwide service providers, including Xfinity, Cox, AT&T, Mediacom, Spectrum, Suddenlink, and Optimum.
How can you get free internet through the government?
The FCC Lifeline program can provide reduced-cost or even no-cost internet access. You can go to the Lifeline Support site to check your eligibility and to apply to the program. You can also check out our in-depth analysis of government programs for free and low-cost internet.
How can students get free internet?
Nearly all the programs mentioned above are available for low-income families with school-age children, though the Connect2Compete program focuses specifically on providing free and reduced-cost internet for students. Both Cox and Mediacom participate in the Connect2Compete program.
There are also many ISPs with programs directed at providing affordable internet for college-age students. To find out more about these programs, check out the best internet plans for students.
How can seniors get free internet?
Seniors can get free internet through the FCC Lifeline program if they participate in the Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit. Many programs, such as the Comcast Internet Essentials program and EveryoneOn, also provide free or affordable training courses for seniors.
For more information, check out our look at the best internet plans and discounts for seniors.
How can I get free lifetime internet access?
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are many emergency assistance programs currently available. But if you want completely free internet access for the rest of your life, your best options are NetZero or FreedomPop. You can also work toward other long-term solutions for affordable internet, such as building a community mesh network or working with organizations like ConnectHomeUSA in starting a digital inclusion program in your area.
- Altice, “In This Together,” Accessed December 10, 2020.
- Hiawatha Broadband Communications, “HBC Extends Keep America Connected Pledge Through June 30,” May 1, 2020. Accessed December 10, 2020.
- Hiawatha Broadband Communications, “HBC Announces Extension of the Keep Americans Connected Pledge,” July 2, 2020. Accessed December 10, 2020.
- Comcast, “Comcast Response to COVID-19,” December 7, 2020. Accessed December 10, 2020.
- PCs for People, “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Updates,” Accessed December 10, 2020.
- Sam Bocetta, Foundation for Economic Education, “Why Mesh Networks Are the Future of Free Internet Access,” October 9, 2018. Accessed December 10, 2020.
Author - Peter Christiansen
Peter Christiansen holds a PhD in Communication from the University of Utah and has been working in tech for over 15 years, working as a computer programmer, game developer, filmmaker, and writer. His writing has been praised by outlets like Wired, Digital Humanities Now, and the New Statesman.
Editor - Aaron Gates