Free Cell Phones Provided to D.C. Residents

Shantella Y. Sherman | 8/12/2009, 11:22 a.m.

Some Residents Remain Leery, Others See Benefit

Anthony Lockridge, Jr., 23, is skeptical of a new program by a wireless phone carrier, TracFone, supplying free cellular phones and limited service to low-income District residents.

€It€s nothing but a way for the government to figure out what we€re doing and where we€re doing it,€ Lockridge said.

Through a federal communications program called SafeLink, TracFone Wireless has joined land-line telephone companies that include AT&T and Verizon, to offer no-cost service to thousands of low-income families in the city. Although the program has existed as landline subsidies through the Federal Communications Commission€s Lifeline program for 25 years, only in recent years has that provision been extended to include cellular phones.
Fadasola Adetosoye, SafeLink assistant project manager of Low Income Accounts, said that while the program is in full swing, the District has eligible consumers who have not taken advantage of the free cell phone offer.

Adetosoye, 23, said she understands that there is a certain amount of suspicion associated with the cell phone giveaway and that residents may question why the government has decided to be so generous. Like Lockridge, consumers are leery, but Adetosoye insists there is nothing to fear.

€The D.C. participation ratio is only about 10 percent of its eligible consumers. Some people still don€t realize that this is available to them and some others fear the government tracking them,€ Adetosoye said. €The government provides oversight over the carriers, not the consumers, so there is no way for the government to get in and monitor someone€s telephones or track people€s behaviors.€

The FCC Lifeline mandate was originally established to ensure that affordable, landline telephone access was available to rural and poor communities. To qualify for the program, a household must receive Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, Section 8, Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, Work First Family Assistance, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or Crisis Intervention Program. Under the rules of the Lifeline program, a low-income household can have just one phone subsidized by Lifeline.

Public opinion about the subsidized cell phone packages has many decrying a return to the days of aiding only the €deserving poor,€ to prevent individuals who are considered lazy from benefiting from free products and services.

€Cell phones are not a necessity,€ Nakisha Woody, 37, said.

€I have mixed emotions about my cell phone fees going to supply service for €Pookie and €nem,€ because the thought of paying someone else€s way is not attractive. At the same time, there are people who need a phone [and] who deserve it. There should be a weeding out [process] that keeps the trifling from benefiting from this.€

Far from being a carte blanche for low-income residents to chat and text for hours on end, Adetosoye explained that customers are provided with 68 free minutes per month, unlimited free 911 emergency calls, and a free cell phone valued at $9.99. Other free services include voice mail, caller ID, call waiting, long distance and text messaging. Customers can purchase additional cell phone minutes for five cents per minute. Program regulations also keep every person in a single household from having an individual phone.

While Woody is correct that the Universal Connectivity Fees on paying cell phone customer€s bills go to pay for the free services of others, a bill and the charge for one month of free services equals roughly $2.50, which amounts to about $31 a year. Once that money is collected, the federal government subsidizes the Lifeline phones by paying $10 per phone/per month from the fund. Some carriers simply apply the $10 as a discount for low-income subscribers. Safelink is able to provide the phones and services free because Tracfone donates an additional $3.50 per month from its service fees. The combined $13.50 equates to the free 68 minutes of airtime each month.

One area posing a conundrum to SafeLink is the provision of one phone to a given address, particularly for those they wish to service who live in communal spaces.

€The key is that there can only be one line provided to a household under these measures and that means that it has to be a landline house phone or a cell phone, but not both. We are trying to deal with a regulation that keeps people [who are] staying in half-way houses, shelters, or transitional housing units from having more than one phone at a single address. These are the people who need this program most, but who through a loophole, are unable to access the services,€ Adetosoye said.

SafeLink eligibility criteria and applications can be found online at www.safelinkwireless.com.