Free Cell Phones, Unlimited Talk & Text from the Government

Established in 1985, the F.C.C.’s Lifeline Program provides low income families with very low-cost or, with the support of cell phone service providers, no cost phone service. Cell phones were added to the program in 2008. Qualified candidates can choose a land line or a cell phone but not both. Many providers nationwide work with the Lifeline Program to offer free cell phone packages that often include unlimited talk and text.

The Lifeline Program was conceived and designed to bring low income families the benefits of modern communication technologies. To qualify for the program, subscribers must have an income that is at or below 135% of the federal poverty guidelines. Enrollment in any of the following assistance programs automatically qualifies households for the Lifeline Program: Medicaid, SNAP, SSI, Section 8 Housing, Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, TANF, Indian Reservation Food Distribution Program, Head Start (if income eligibility criteria are met) and certain state assistance programs. For a complete and current list of qualifying programs, check the F.C.C. website.

Though some debate the necessity of the Lifeline Program, enrollees maintain that a personal phone is vital to finding and retaining employment and keeping in touch with their healthcare providers and community. Safety has also been cited as a key benefit of the program. Christina S. of Ukiah, California admits that her free cellphone has been a Godsend. “It’s a bit janky, but I’m really grateful for this little guy,” she laughs holding up her refurbished flip phone. “I wouldn’t have been able to participate in a very important internship without this phone. Cell phones were required for emergency situations.”

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 mandated that the telecommunications providers must contribute to a universal service fund (USF) to pay for the Lifeline Program. Most providers passed this cost to their customers in the form of a small fee. Free phones have never been part of the Lifeline Program but have been championed and paid for by cell phone providers to attract customers. This strategy has proven very successful as the initial cost of purchasing a cell phone excludes many of the working poor from cell phone ownership.

There are no less than 25 companies nationwide that provide free cell phone service and a great number of these plans include unlimited talk and text. The two largest providers are Safelink Wireless and Assurance Wireless. Both of these companies serve millions of customers and both are available in most states. Most states offer a dozen or more options in free cell phone providers. The F.C.C. provides a regularly updated list of companies who participate in the Lifeline Program. Simply click on your state for a list of local providers.

In today’s market, many free cell phone providers give away phones, and a few even give away smart phones. The comprehensive consumer website compiled a great, well annotated, list in March of 2016. A quick survey confirms that this information is still accurate. When even the cheapest cell phone can cost $100, this inroad to communication technology is phenomenally helpful to a low-income family.

California is well ahead on the curve with several companies, including Safelink Wireless, Assurance Wireless, Blue Jay Wireless, Entouch Data, Feel Safe Wireless, Life Wireless, SafetyNet Wireless, Tag Mobile and TrueConnect, all offering free phones and unlimited talk and text. Some of these companies also offer a limited, but generous, amount of data. California lawmakers recognized the pitfalls of the digital divide and have legislated substantial incentives to cell phone companies to encourage the inclusion of low-income subscribers. These policies have proven effective in that California, according to data from the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), has more enrollees in the Lifeline Program (1.5 million) than any other state.

Free government cell phones with unlimited talk and text, are no myth. Most people won’t receive the latest smart phone, or a plan that includes crazy amounts of data. What one can expect is a reliable phone with enough coverage to participate in the increasingly internet-based economy. Cell phones connect workers to jobs and community members to each other with much less infrastructure spending than traditional landlines. The Lifeline Program is a win/win for companies and lower-income families alike.

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