My first cell phone, a Motorola Startac, came with a plan that included 60 anytime minutes for $30.00. That’s it. I didn’t get free weekends or nights, no texting (it wasn’t even an option yet), no caller id, and certainly no such thing as web surfing. My parents explained that my emergency-only cell phone was to be carried at all times and was the result of my new driver status. I still called my friends from our cordless home phone and I can only recall a handful of times that I even used my cell. In 1996, when I was 16, I used a pager and my cell phone seemed impractical and only useful as a paperweight.
My brother received his first cell phone in 2004 at the age of twelve. In just eight short years cell phones had become mini-computers you carried in your pocket. His first phone included texting, basic web surfing, 1000 anytime minutes, free weekends and nights starting at 7:00 pm, a digital camera, the ability to play music, and a host of other little things offered at $40.00 per month including a free phone if you signed a contract. In addition, all of his friends had cell phones with similar features and they carried them everywhere. The ability to connect with anyone at anytime in anyplace had changed the world. My parents cancelled their home phone service that year.
Cell phones have become the standard for personal communication, most notably in the work place. While many business still use land line phone systems in-house, employees are expected to carry cell phones and be available at all times. I recently had a supervisor refer to an employee as “lame” because she and her boyfriend shared one cell phone so she could not always be immediately reached. Despite the commonplace status of cell phones, the expense still precludes many needy individuals and families from owning one. AT&T, the largest United States cell phone service provider, lists it’s least expensive individual cell phone plan at $39.99 a month. The plan includes 450 anytime minutes and 5000 night and weekend minutes. Plus, the user better hope they don’t go above their allotment because the additional per minute charge is $.45, which adds up quickly. This plan does not include any texting or web service but does come with an additional $36.00 activation fee and a 2-year contract with a huge cancellation fee. The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour and even if a minimum wage paid worker has two jobs and racks up 80 hours per week they still earn less than $30,000 per year, gross income. After paying rent, basic bills, car costs, and taking care of food and needs for a family, there is not much left over to cover the cost of a cell phone.
As a result of this disparity, numerous states have begun to offer government provided free or very low cost cell phone services to those who qualify based on financial need. Thirty-eight states plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico offer cell phones to needy families as a social service through three main service providers, Assurance Wireless, ReachOut Wireless, and Safelink Wireless. All three services provide the same basic deal to those who qualify. The user receives a free cell phone, 250 anytime minutes, caller id, basic text messaging, and long distance among other services. In addition, the user can upgrade the service plan for a modest $5.00 to $20.00 fee per month depending on features. The phones are pretty basic but they get the job done at a considerably cheaper rate and without the pre-paid minutes purchase necessary with a non-contract tracfone.
Currently, the $4,500,000,000 cost of providing low or no cost cell phone and internet service to needy individuals and families is overseen by the FCC Universal Service Fund. Wondering where all that money comes from? The next time you get a cell phone bill take a look at the itemized additional charges and you will see a USF charge of approximately $3.00. That money combined with traditional taxpayer funds supports the program, which many opponents look to when criticizing the service and its provisions. Supporters of the program tend to follow the old adage often used to support social services in general, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Opponents of the program point to mounting federal debt, tax rate increases, and the shrinking middle class as reasons to avoid funding what is still seen by many to be a luxury item. While not as convenient, subsidized home phone service is still available, often for a fraction of the price of cell phone service.
In my experience, cell phone service is considered by most to be a necessity. I know very few people who still pay for a traditional home phone and if you can only afford one phone service why not choose the one that can be carried with you everywhere. I argue that providing subsidized cell phone service is an integral part of guaranteeing employability for needy individuals and providing emergency services to the elderly and disabled. In my opinion, if I can afford to help then why shouldn’t I?