This is the common name given to the Lifeline Assistance program. The program is designed to give telephone service to those who need a telephone but can not afford to own one. Not everyone qualifies for the Lifeline Assistance program. However, if you’re struggling financially, if you already take part in another state or federal assistance program, or if your income is low enough, you may be one of the fortunate ones who do.
The next time that you get a bill from your telephone provider, take a look at the list of government fees that are charged. You will probably find a fee called “universal lifeline” or something like that name.
The program provides for a partial subsidy on a land-line telephone. These phones are connected to the telephone network by a dedicated wire. In the dark days of telephone service, perhaps back to the time when President Woodrow Wilson was in office, this was your only method of a telephone. Then, there were many competing telephone companies. At that time, the it was difficult to get a telephone; not because it cost so much, but because there were too many competing companies that the interconnect and interoperability was becoming impossible.
Back during the time of Franklin Roosevelt, the Federal Communications Commission was created. This group, identified simply as the FCC, regulated the telephone industry, the radio industry, and later the television industry. If you had a telephone company or telephone service, your government regulators were the FCC. They controlled what service you received, and regulated the prices that you paid for the service.
During the time of Ronald Reagan, the FCC created the first Lifeline Assistance Program. It just offered a subsidy for land-line service since cell phone service was not yet available. There were mobile phones but were very primitive compared to today’s standards. (I had one. It was quite large and was not something that you just “slipped” into a pocket. I carried it in my briefcase. But, like most everyone else, I too had a land-line telephone which is what I normally used because the quality was far superior.)
Then came Bill Clinton’s tenure. During that time, congress authorized a subsidy for land-line telephones under the new name “Universal Lifeline Assistance”. Now, people could actually start to get money to pay for the telephone service. It was basically at this time that the act started to help people.
Now we come to President Obama, and what is commonly called the “Obama Phone” act. It is called Obama Phone because it has so rapidly during his administration to over 20 million needy families. Today, you can get a partial credit for a land-line phone or a free cell phone under the plan. Why free cell phone and only a partial subsidy for a land-line phone? Because, a cell phone actually costs less than a land-line phone to the telephone company. They don’t need to string wires to your telephone. Your cell phone provides the interconnect to the telephone network directly. In addition, the telephone company may limit the amount of time that is actually available on the plan. Some limit the time to 250 minutes, or about 4 hours, per month.
The original provider to offer free cell phones to those people who are financially impoverished, the poor and homeless, is Safeline Wireless. The company is in Tennessee. All that you needed to do was show that you are either receiving Medicaid, Food Stamps, Supplemental Security Income you qualify for the help under the federal law. However, the state regulates the programs as well. This means that it will vary from state to state. Some states will go above that and demand that the program be open to those on other programs, such as California’s Medical, CalWORKs, or GAIN programs, Oklahoma’s OK Sales Tax Relief, or Massachusetts’ MassHealth. Each state also determines the income level under which you qualify. For example, a family of six in Hawaii can earn as much as $62,249 per year and still qualify. (The cost of living is higher in Hawaii and Alaska, so the figures are higher as a result.)
If you qualify in California, you can get your one free telephone for a family from Safelink Wireless, a subsidiary of TracPhone, Assurance Wireless, Budget Mobile or Reachout Wireless.
Like some other government subsidy programs, this one too is not without its share of fraud. Companies were signing people up for this service who did not qualify just to get the subsidy from the government.
But, for the most part, the program runs well and helped those to have telephone service. Today, in this shrinking world, you must reach people. It is no longer a luxury. It is a necessity. And, since the homeless never seem to have a single home, a cell phone is the best method of reaching them while they wander under the stars.