Wait…something associated with the government that is free?! Say what?! Yes, believe it or not, there has been an FCC-mandated program in place in the United States enabling those that are in financial need to have access to a free phone since 1996. Initially, this program only applied to landline phones indeed, the name of the program is Lifeline however, in mid-2008, it was extended to cell phones as well. Interestingly, many people have nicknamed this the “Obama-phone,” likely due to our current President’s focus on helping out citizens that are experiencing financial hardships (lower student loan rates, Obamacare, etc.). However, as mentioned earlier, the program took effect in 2008, which was before Mr. Obama was in office.
The first state to get the ball rolling with free government cell phones was Tennessee. Since then, more and more states across the union, as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, have followed suit. Presently, there are 39 states that have adopted the program into their jurisdictions, and the remaining eleven will likely be brought on soon. At least…the wireless companies hope they will—the program cost about $800 million to launch back in 2008 but it is now projected as being over a billion dollar industry, according to government estimates in 2011. Furthermore, the richest man on Earth, Carlos Slim, accumulated his fortune through his ownership of Safelink Wireless, the number one free cell phone company in the US based on subscribers. So, apparently there is money to be made in the sale of free products. That is obviously not completely true, though. The money made is clearly in the various upgrades and additional features sold to subscribers. Per the requirements of the program, 250 minutes are allotted to an individual or family every month. However, depending on the communication needs of the family, more minutes might be required and can be purchased by the cell phone holder if he or she so chooses. Furthermore, some people are not satisfied with the standard-issue phones they receive and might want to add features such as ringtones, wallpapers or games. While this seems a little bit counterproductive to a person needing a free cell phone due to financial hardship, that is one great thing about the USA: it is a free country.
People that are involved in the free cell phone program don’t have total freedom, though. For example, only one cell phone is permitted per household. The phones are also able to be deactivated, if no use has occurred in a two month period. “Use,” for the sake of the program, means making or taking a call, checking a voicemail, sending a text and the like. No internet or smart phones are included, either; though as previously stated, enrollees can choose to pay for these features if they want to. Internet might not even be a necessary yet optional phone feature in the future, as the FCC has already proposed free Internet access and low-cost computers to those living below the poverty level. This has not been approved, however.
According to government information and statistics, there were approximately 6,352,427 subscribers in the Lifeline wireless program as of March 2011. When considering the fact that only one cell phone is allowed per household, this is slightly alarming. That means, essentially, that there are over six million families in the United States that make anywhere between 135-150% of the poverty limit, which is a rough base requirement to qualify for a free cell phone from the government. While on a grand scale this is only a very small percentage of the population of our nation, the idea of an entire state such as Tennessee or Missouri (both of which have populations in the low-to-mid six millions) living below the poverty line is quite discouraging. Hopefully our political leaders at both the local and national levels will find ways to work together and solve this serious problem. In the meantime, citizens (and even non-citizens, as nationality/country of origin is not a requirement to qualify for the program) all over the country are continuing to take advantage of the free cell phone program. The application process is fairly simple and most often requires little to no proof of finances, unless the income-based application is selected. If a person or family opts to apply under this plan, they typically must provide some sort of documentation such as a paystub or tax return. The other application type is based on whether or not a person or family is collecting state or federally issued benefits such as food stamps, Social Security or Medicaid. Though applicants must certify under penalty of perjury that the information in their applications is factual and correct, for the most part the companies that issue the phones conduct no background checks or take the time to confirm that the people actually do receive the benefits they say they do. Needless to say, there is an exceptional amount of fraud involved in this program, and since working Americans fund it via the Universal Service Fund attached to their phone bills every month, this is something that the FCC should make a top priority as the program continues to grow.
It is both a blessing and a curse to have the type of government that will provide programs such as free cell phones to its residents. On the one hand, those that are legitimately in need due to inability to find work, breadwinners dying suddenly or any other situation that might apply have the opportunity to have cell phones at their disposal to communicate with loved ones as well as pursue career/job prospects. On the other hand, though, freeloaders who are perfectly capable of acquiring work or possibly even have well-paid jobs are also able to use a cell phone for free at the expense of taxpayers due to a lack of factual verification. As both this industry and the US continues to grow, ideally all of the kinks will get worked out and free cell phones will be used only by those that need it and only until they are able to pay for a cell phone themselves. Only time will tell.