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.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How much money can you get from the EBB?
  • Can you use the EBB on a bundled service plan?
  • Who can get the EBB?
  • Can retirees apply for the EBB?
  • Is the EBB only open to U.S. citizens?
  • Can you get the EBB if you lost income in 2020, but got a new job in 2021?

How much money can you get from the EBB?

There’s $50 per month off the price of a broadband connection per family, with the money coming straight off your Internet bill — not through a rebate check or through your taxes. You can apply it to a home Internet connection or wireless cellphone bill, but not both in the same household.

Just note: Not all Internet plans are eligible, particularly ultrafast ones.

The average American monthly Internet bill is about $65, estimates Consumer Reports. If your bill is less than $50, you won’t get to pocket what’s left over from the EBB.

The EBB benefit increases to $75 per month for families that live in tribal areas. And there’s an additional one-time $100 discount available for people who purchase new equipment like a laptop or tablet through a participating company.

Can you use the EBB on a bundled service plan?

Technically, you can’t use the EBB to pay for cable TV or voice service. But if you’ve got an Internet bundle package that includes one of those, your provider can apply the EBB to the part that pays for Internet.

Who can get the EBB?

The FCC has a “Do I Qualify” page online that I recommend reading for the details, but eligibility boils down to three big categories:

  1. Americans who lost jobs or substantial income during the pandemic — which at the lowest point in May 2020, was about 50 million Americans, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  2. People who receive food stamps, Medicaid, supplemental Social Security income, federal public housing assistance, have a child who qualified for free and reduced-price lunch at school or received a federal Pell Grant for education. You also can get it if your income is 135 percent or less than the federal poverty guidelines, which vary by household size and state.
  3. Americans who already receive subsidized or low-income Internet service, such the FCC’s Lifeline or ISP-sponsored programs such as Comcast’s $10 per month Internet Essentials.

Can retirees apply for the EBB?

Yes, but just being retired won’t qualify you. You’ll have to prove you meet another one of the criteria listed above.

For example, a family of two that meets the poverty threshold — $23,517 in the 48 contiguous states, D.C. and territories — can apply.

Is the EBB only open to U.S. citizens?

No. All U.S. residents can apply.

Can you get the EBB if you lost income in 2020, but got a new job in 2021?

Yes. You don’t need to prove continued unemployment, but you will need to prove that your current annual income is below $99,000 for a single person or $198,000 for a family.

Is your ISP participating?

Your first step in signing up for the EBB is to make sure your Internet provider is participating in the program. The United States has thousands of ISPs, some serving just particular counties or Zip codes — and none is required to participate. I was initially suspicious that the voluntary system would leave large swaths of the country uncovered, but I’ve been impressed. Even Loving County, Tex. (population 169), has a few participating ISPs.

Some ISPs, like satellite company Viasat, tell me they’ve signed up with the FCC to join the program but they’re still finalizing details so don’t yet show up on the EBB website.

The website GetEmergencyBroadband.org links to a page where you can look up which companies are participating in your area by Zip code.

Some of the largest wired and wireless Internet providers, including Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Charter have dedicated Web pages about the program.

If your ISP isn’t participating but there’s another in your area that is, you can switch and still get the benefit as a new customer.

How do you sign up for the EBB?

For most people, the process will begin at the website GetEmergencyBroadband.org, which is available in English and Spanish. It takes you to an application site run by a company called the Universal Service Administrative Co., but it’s still the official government site for signing up and should protect your personal information. The application site says Lifeline National Verifier on top.

The site will you to prove your identity, such as by sharing a Social Security number, driver’s license, passport or other ID.

One you’ve got an account set up, scroll down the page and click “Get Started” under the EBB section. Some readers have accidentally started a Lifeline application because it’s all on the same page.

You’ll have to upload copies of documents that prove your eligibility, such as a layoff notice or unemployment application and your 2020 tax returns. (You can scan them or even snap a photo with your phone.)

You should get notice within two days about whether you’ve been approved.

If you don’t have the capability or Internet speed to apply online, you can also download and print an application, and then mail it.

After you’ve been approved by the government’s verification system, you’ll need to go to your ISP and tell them. Some let you flag that online or in store, while others require you to give them a call.

Applying is simpler for people already enrolled in Lifeline or programs such as Internet Essentials from Comcast. By participating in these programs, your eligibility is already verified — you just need to notify your ISP that you want to take advantage of the EBB benefit.

How do you apply for the EBB if the broadband bill is under your roommate or partner’s name?

The EBB applies to “households,” which the FCC says includes “an adult who lives with friends or family who financially support him/her.” When it comes time to apply, though, that has to happen in the name of the person who qualifies for the benefit. Comcast told me if someone else in the house currently pays the monthly bill, the company might ask to change the name on the account to the person who applied for the benefit.

How do you get the EBB $100 credit for a laptop, tablet or desktop computer?

This part of the EBB comes with significant limitations.

First, you have to buy the new device from a participating ISP — and many of the biggest ones decided not to join the hardware portion of the EBB. One way to find who is participating is to look at this master list from the FCC, then go to your state and find the companies with checks in the column labeled “Offering Connected Devices.”

Second, the FCC says you can only get this credit if you spend “more than $10 but less than $50 for the device” after the $100 discount. That means a new Apple iPad ($330) is out of the question, but an inexpensive Chromebook or Android tablet might be possible. You can’t use the credit on smartphones.

Can you get the EBB if you’re already behind on your Internet bills?

The FCC’s rules say even if your bill is delinquent, your ISP still has to let you sign up for the EBB. But you’ll still have to pay your past-due bills.

Can your ISP use the EBB to play tricks with your bill?

Some ISPs might try to use this as an opportunity to upsell you on faster — and more expensive — service plans. For example, Verizon makes you call a phone number and speak to a rep to sign up. It wouldn’t tell me whether the call would involve a sales pitch, and there aren’t any rules preventing it.

I’ve also found a number of ISPs claiming their older plans aren’t eligible for the EBB. Technically, the rules for the EBB allow for this — they just have to make the EBB available on at least one service for low-income customers. Again, I can imagine some providers trying to use EBB sign-ups as leverage to get people onto new plans that are more expensive. (And ISPs wonder why they’re among the least-admired American companies.)

Just remember, if you do upgrade your plan, you could be on the hook for higher monthly fees when the EBB money runs out.

What happens when the EBB money runs out?

The EBB money will flow until six months after the federal government declares an end to the covid-19 health crisis — or when the money runs out, whichever comes first.

The FCC says it will be watching its totals and will provide notice online when it’s nearing the bottom.

Of course, Congress could extend the program, which some lawmakers have proposed.

Will the EBB close America’s digital divide?

We’ve been talking about the digital divide for years, yet at least 18 million Americans still lack speedy and reliable connections, the FCC found in a report released last June. Some think that tally still undercounts the real problem.

What’s different about the EBB is that Congress is addressing the cost of broadband, rather than just building out more physical infrastructure to rural areas, says Jonathan Schwantes, a senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports. “The bigger problem is that broadband is just too darn expensive,” he says. In the long run, though, subsidies alone won’t fix problems that include a lack of pricing transparency and uniformity of service.

Wait, you’ve got more questions — or discovered some shenanigans.

You can call the EBB help line at 833-511-0311. Or drop me a line on email or through my Washington Post Help Desk and I’ll update this column with answers to questions that could help everyone.

Read more tech advice and reviews from Geoffrey A. Fowler: