The government wants to pay your Internet bill for a few months. Here’s what you need to do.

A surprising number of Americans can get $50 each month from the new $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit. That includes tens of millions who lost work during the pandemic.

Kelly Mack works on her laptop to teach remotely from her early 1940s vintage camper/trailer in her backyard at home in Evanston, Ill. Even though the federal government has spent tens of billions of dollars to close the digital divide, tens of millions of Americans still are not online. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)
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Washington wants to pick up the tab for tens of millions of Americans’ Internet connections. That may include yours.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit, or EBB, was launched Wednesday to help a surprisingly wide range of people hit economically by the coronavirus pandemic. It can pay $50 every month toward the cost of your Internet service, and it is available to all families who lost some income in the last year and earn less than $198,000, among others. With $3.2 billion up for grabs, the EBB is the largest federal program to help with Internet bills in the three decades Americans have been going online.

But there’s a catch. You can get the EBB discount on your home Internet or cellphone bill only if you sign up. I’ll show you how. Just know it may require some patience: So many people are applying, the government’s website to prove you’re eligible for the EBB went down for some people on Wednesday morning.

Help Desk: Readers report ISPs are using the EBB to push them onto new data plans

The program reflects one clear lesson from covid-19: An Internet connection has become just as important to American life as electricity and water. Watching many people struggle to go to school, consult the doctor or work online during the pandemic helped Congress realize that the high price of broadband is a root cause of America’s digital divide. Okay, maybe it took Congress a few too many months to realize that — but better late than never. Lawmakers authorized the EBB in December as part of a $2 trillion coronavirus aid package. Now the Federal Communications Commission finally has the program up and running in every state and territory with more than 875 Internet service providers, or ISPs.

For many, the EBB discount may make going online totally free. The money goes straight to your ISP, which will deduct it from your bill every month until six months after the pandemic is officially over — or, more likely, until the program runs out of money. That’s one good reason to sign up as soon as possible.

But before you can get the EBB, you have to prove you’re eligible. The good news: Many, many Americans are eligible for a range of reasons — so many, that not even the FCC has been able to figure out exactly how many people the EBB could affect or how long the money will last.

I went through the application process with some of the country’s largest Internet providers. For most people, signing up is a two-part process of proving your eligibility to the government, and then telling your ISP that you want the discount. It involves uploading (or physically mailing) some paperwork, but the FCC says the process shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes.

Before you start, it’s helpful to know the lingo. The new monthly discount program is called the Emergency Broadband Benefit, or EBB. There’s a different government program called Lifeline that provides basic service for low-income people. People already enrolled in Lifeline can also get the EBB, but the EBB covers many more Americans.

Below are the EBB basics, and my advice on how to avoid some complications from ISPs that might want to make you jump through hoops to get the money.