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Free cellphone program for the poor draws critics

August 6, 2011 |  7:00 am

Cell_phone

Is having a cellphone a basic human right?

In more than half the states in America, people who are eligible for Medicaid and food stamps may also be eligible for a free cellphone and 250 free minutes a month.

A story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that unearthed this program, which has been around for three years, reported that up to 5.5 million people could qualify for a free cellphone and free service in Pennsylvania alone. The article identified two companies that provide free cellphones and free minutes to people who qualify -- Assurance Wireless, a program of Sprint subsidiary Virgin Mobile, and SafeLink, a program from Tracphone Wireless. Neither service is available in California.

These free cellphone and minute plans are paid for by the Universal Service Fund, which telecommunications companies must contribute to by law. According to the Tribune-Review story, every cellphone service carrier passes the charge of its contribution on to its American customers. Cellphone users will see a "universal service" charge added to their contract each month. That money funds free cellphones and minutes to the poor and ensures that schools and libraries have secure phone service.

Assurance Wireless and SafeLink collect $10 from the Universal Service Fund for each person who signs up for their free service. The phones they give out are stripped down and basic and cost about $10 as well.

Earlier this month, Assurance Wireless launched the free cellphone program in Utah. In a news release about the launch, the company cited the high levels of unemployment and pitched the service as a way to help lower income residents of the state get a job.

“As we’ve become available in more and more states, Assurance is proud to help customers stay connected to potential employers, medical providers and child care-givers,” Grace Boehm, director for Assurance Wireless, said in a statement. “We look forward to providing this same type of assistance to eligible Utah residents who need support and resources during what continue to be rough economic times for many.”

But critics aren't buying it.

"Our society cannot afford to give free everything to everybody," Robert Rector, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation told the Tribune-Review. "Most poor people already had adequate telephone service and will continue to do so."

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-- Deborah Netburn

Image: Screengrab from safelinkwireless.com.

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