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How to Find Free or Lower-Cost Wi-Fi in the Bay Area

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A purple-toned, dark illustration depicting panels of human faces, overlaid with a bright green Wi-Fi symbol with a pink question mark in the middle of it.
Looking for free or lower-cost Wi-Fi in California? You have options. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

Update: As of February 8, the Affordable Connectivity Program is no longer receiving applications due to a lack of federal funding. Existing participants will receive this discount until current funds run out, which is projected to be in April 2024. Scroll to the end of the article for other options.

Getting that essay done. Checking work emails. Trying to apply for benefits on the city’s website. Looking up the weather. Staying in touch with loved ones. Wi-Fi is a vital part of life — especially during the COVID pandemic — and it is getting increasingly pricey.

But over 3.7 million California households are eligible for free or lower cost Wi-Fi and may not even know it — according to April data from EducationSuperHighway, a national nonprofit that partnered with the city of San Francisco to get more people online through the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Do you qualify? How can you get free or low-cost Wi-Fi near you? Keep reading for what you need to know about finding free or low-cost Wi-Fi in California.

What is the Affordable Connectivity Program?

The Affordable Connectivity Program is a $14.2 billion program from the Federal Communications Commission that provides households with discounts on — or access to — broadband internet. ACP offers a discount of $30 per month on broadband plans, or a discount of $75 for people living on Tribal lands. Broadband is the internet connection that you physically connect to a router with a wire — i.e., what you get at home. Wi-Fi is wireless. So once you plug in the wireless router at your house, this means that, depending on the cost of your broadband internet plan, the ACP discount could make your home Wi-Fi free.

The program also offers a one-time $100 to purchase a laptop, computer, or tablet just for participating, as long as that household contributes more than $10 (and less than $50) toward the purchase price. (ACP is limited to one monthly service discount and device discount per household.)

Lots of people who could be getting discounted Wi-Fi, though, aren’t using this program. Just 36% of eligible California households are enrolled in ACP — and adoption rates are even lower in Bay Area cities.

San Francisco has a 28% adoption rate, Oakland’s rate is 29%, and San José’s 26% — meaning most of these cities’ eligible households are missing out on affordable Wi-Fi that could benefit their work, education and everyday life.

Check out the map below to see how many California cities are enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program:


Who is eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program?

ACP has a quick tool to check if your household is eligible for discounted internet. It also tells you what documents you need to prepare for the application.

In general, people are eligible if the household income is at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. For individuals, that’s an annual income of $27,180 or lower. For a household of four, that’s $55,500 per year or lower. See the entire income guideline table (PDF).

a chart showing the federal poverty guidelines
The Federal Poverty Guidelines.

A household can also be eligible if someone in the household is already receiving other benefits, including:

  • SNAP (Supplemental Food Assistance Program, known as CalFresh in the state).
  • Medicaid (known as Medi-Cal in California).
  • Federal housing assistance (such as Section 8 vouchers).
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance (must also live on qualifying Tribal lands).
  • Veterans Pension or Survivor Benefits.

In fact, internet providers are required to participate in the federal ACP (or a similar program) in order to receive money from the White House’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program $42.45 billion fund to expand high-speed internet access across the U.S.

Major internet providers will also likely have their own guide on how to get rolling on their internet coverage through ACP. These include:

AT&T

ACP can be applied to AT&T’s Access feature, which offers Wi-Fi for free up to 100 Mbps after the benefits are activated. (Apply at att.com/getacp or call 866-986-0963.) Have your ACP ID ready. It is possible for households to participate in an Access offer and not ACP.

Comcast/Xfinity

Along with ACP, Comcast also has an Internet Essential program, which gives $9.95 off per month for 50 Mbps and $29.95 per month for 100 Mbps. Read more about the Internet Essentials Program here.

T-Mobile

Along with ACP, T-Mobile has the Project 10Million program for students.

Internet providers Sonic and MonkeyBrains (which is based in San Francisco) also have their own guides to getting ACP through their services.

How else can I find free or low-cost Wi-Fi?

Lifeline is a FCC program that provides discounts for phone or internet service. While separate to ACP, households who qualify for Lifeline also qualify for ACP, and it’s technically possible to be enrolled in both programs (more on this below).

Lifeline provides up to $9.25 off the monthly bill for eligible lower-income households (up to $34.25 per month for those on Tribal lands.) There are, however, caveats: One household cannot have more than one Lifeline service, and it cannot get a discount on both wireline (home phone) or wireless (cell phone) services.

More Guides from KQED

But there is also a California-only version of Lifeline. Here, the monthly cell phone service discount is up to $17.90 and the service connection discount is up to $39 — but again, there’s fine print. “Only one discount per household for each residential address is allowed (except for teletypewriter users and for Deaf and Disabled Telecommunications Program participants),” the website reads. “Households cannot get the discount from multiple phone companies. Households that do not follow the one discount per household rule will lose their discounts.”

California households qualify for either Lifeline program if they are enrolled in other benefits programs such as:

  • Medicaid/Medi-Cal
  • SNAP/CalFresh
  • Section 8
  • Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

Households can also qualify based on income before taxes. If a household is made up of one to two people, that collective income must be at or under $32,500. For a house of four, it must be at or under $45,900. See the full eligibility list for Lifeline.

If households are only interested in broadband (internet access), they can apply for Lifeline on the National Verifier application system. If you’d like help from an internet service provider when getting connected, you can check out this tool to see which companies are nearest to you. Households will have to recertify every year.

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So how can I enroll in Lifeline and ACP for discounts on my phone and internet?

It is possible for households to be in both ACP and Lifeline programs. However, being in Lifeline doesn’t automatically enroll a household in the ACP — users would have to opt-in with their internet provider or request enrollment with the ACP.

“You can also combine these benefits with other state and local benefits where available,” the FCC website states. “They can be applied to the same qualifying service or separately to a Lifeline service and an Affordable Connectivity Program service with the same or different providers.”

“For example, an eligible household could have a Lifeline-supported mobile phone service and a separate home internet service that is supported through the Affordable Connectivity Program.”

Map: Find a free or low-cost internet plan near you

California’s Public Utilities Commission has a tool for users to find free or low-cost options near them, sorted by zip code.

Hover over the highlighted areas to get more information broken down to mobile providers and internet providers near you.

a screenshot of a map with degrees of color, showing which and how many low-cost internet providers are available in this neighborhood of San Francisco
The CPUC provides a map showing low cost internet plans near you.

For example, in 94110 (where KQED’s office is located), Comcast’s Internet Essentials is a nearby low-cost option.

What are some other useful programs for free or low-cost Wi-Fi?

Residents also may qualify for the Deaf and Disabled Telecommunication Program that provides specialized technology and services.

For those who represent community-based organizations, they may be eligible for 50% off their connection services through the California Teleconnect Fund.

Tell us: What else do you need information about?

At KQED News, we know that it can sometimes be hard to track down the answers to navigate life in the Bay Area in 2023. We’ve published clear, practical explainers and guides about COVID, how to cope with intense winter weather and how to exercise your right to protest safely.

So tell us: What do you need to know more about? Tell us, and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger, and help us decide what to cover here on our site, and on KQED Public Radio, too.

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