AT&T says it is now offering discounted Internet service to low-income Americans who receive food stamps, following in the footsteps of some of its biggest rivals.
The program, called Access from AT&T, lets eligible households sign up for basic wired broadband that starts at $5 a month for download speeds of 5 Mbps. It also offers faster speed tiers of 5 Mbps and 10 Mbps, both of which cost $10 a month.
As many as 20 million Americans are without wired Internet service of at least 10 Mbps, according to data from the Federal Communications Commission.
Access from AT&T resembles low-cost Internet programs run by other Internet providers. Comcast, for instance, runs a service called Internet Essentials that offers 10 Mbps download speeds for $10 a month, primarily to households with children who qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. And Google Fiber, meanwhile, has been actively working with the Obama administration to put its high-speed services in public housing. It's currently revamping its program for low-cost Internet; the new plans will cost $15 a month for speeds of 25 Mbps.
The push to wire low-income households to the Internet comes despite a broader shift in society toward mobile, wireless data networks. A recent study by the Commerce Department showed that non-wealthy Americans mostly use cellular data to access the Web — and the trend is growing across all income brackets.
Still, the program from AT&T could help some Americans connect cheaply to the Web. With Access, AT&T is following through on a voluntary offer it made during discussions with regulators as it was trying to secure approval for its merger with DirecTV, according to officials from the Federal Communications Commission.
There is a catch to the program, though. For starters, customers who've demonstrated their eligibility for Access will be automatically assigned to the fastest speed tier available in their region — they won't be able to choose a slower, cheaper plan even if that's what they would prefer. Meanwhile, Access from AT&T is a time-limited program; it'll run only until April 2020 before customers will presumably need to find another plan.
An AT&T spokesman said it is "premature" to discuss what will happen beyond then.