The Lifeline Assistance Program was created in 1985 for low-income families that needed help with their home phone service. The program offered a monthly discount on their landline bill. Since the 1990’s and especially within the last few years, other companies have instituted programs that offered charity assistance and/or discounts for their customers. For instance, with utilities such as water, electricity and even garbage.
The premise is essentially the same. Customers must meet certain criteria in order to be approved. They must show proof of income, a valid physical address, legal identification and a social security number. It is assumed that if a household already receives government funded assistance that they may already qualify for a free wireless phone. This benefit is strictly limited to one per household, and is monitored through addresses listed on applications. Eligibility requirements are checked every few months and almost all notifications are also done through the wireless phone. Recipients can monitor their usage on the phone anytime. They can view how many minutes or text messages they have remaining and for a small fee they may also add long distance coverage or additional minutes or texting options. Internet service can also be added to the phone, which can be convenient for those without access to a computer or Internet resource. In 2005 the program was extended to offer wireless phone coverage as well in addition to landline service. As cell phones became more popular, landline service became a less viable option. The Lifeline Program itself provides discounts on monthly telephone service. Another similar program called Link Up is used primarily for those residing in Tribal lands.
So who pays for all of this? The straightforward answer is to name the Universal Service Fund. The FCC created the fund in 1997 as a compliance measure that would be able to meet goals outlined by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The overall goal for Link Up and Lifeline was to be able to provide the opportunity and security of telephone service to all Americans. All telecommunication providers contribute to the federal Universal Service Fund based on the percentage of their communication revenues. In essence a percentage of what they make from paying customers goes directly to the Universal Service Fund in order to provide service for those that cannot afford it. This is sort of like the fees or taxes we pay for 911 services on our cell phones regardless of our plan or minutes, or the flat tax for garbage disposal no matter how much garbage may be in your bin.
It is a percentage from ALL telecommunication providers that is set aside for a small percentage of the population that cannot afford it themselves. For most Americans this type of benefit can be surprising despite the federal funding and legislation. Unlike food stamps, housing assistance or student loans, cell phones are be considered by most as a luxury and not necessarily a necessity for daily living. Why should someone be given a cell phone if they can’t afford food or rent in the first place? How is a free phone going to help them?
As with any welfare program or government funded benefits the risk of abuse and legitimacy on the part of the applicant is something to consider. With free cell phone programs each household is limited to one phone for the household. A physical address is verified with the applicant and is monitored to ensure that only one phone is linked to a household. However there are no safeguards to ensure that an adult is using the phone at all times and there is no way of tracking who or what the phone is being used for. Text messaging also falls into a gray area in terms of necessity. Although text messaging has been accommodated into our daily plethora of instant communication, is it appropriate to offer this service to someone that cannot make enough to survive on their own?
With all the technology attached to cell phones anyone can check their email or bank statements via text message. Unfortunately there is no way of knowing to which the messages are being sent to or for what reasons. No matter the use of the phones, cell phones have become a critical component to daily living in America. It is a necessity that not everyone can afford and one of the easiest things to fall behind with. Free cell phone programs offer a safety net for those that are trying to get back on their feet and trying to maintain a lifestyle that they once had. The program was not meant to serve as a permanent phone service provider but as an aid for those that cannot afford services on their own through larger retail phone companies. As we grow more and more dependent and reliant on technology we have to consider the financial costs associated with trying to keep up. As phone and Internet access become more vital in keeping connected, having emergency access and gaining employment, the need for programs like Assurance Wireless or Linked are crucial.Share This Page