There are a handfull of cell phone service providers that are offering free cell phones to low income individuals. The three most popular companies are Assurance Wireless, ReachOut Wireless and SafeLink Wireless.
These companies are able to offer such services as a result of the government lifeline/linkup program. The lifeline program was enacted back in during the Reagan Administration. Often times people mistakenly refer to this program as “Obama Phones,” but this program was in existence well before President Obama took office.
What is Lifeline?
The Lifeline program was created to assist low income individuals with their telephone services. Realizing how important it is for every American to have access to a telephone, the Lifeline program provides assistance through monthly phone bill discounts and/or free wireless cell phones.
The sister program to Lifeline is called Link Up. Through the Link Up program, qualified individuals receive a discount on the initial phone installation charges or activation fees charged by phone companies.
How Lifeline/Link Up is Funded
The Lifeline/Link Up programs are funded through a Universal Service Fund. Each phone provider contributes to the fund based on revenues. Some phone service providers elect to pass some of their contribution cost onto the consumers in the form of charging a Universal Service fee on the monthly phone bill. Since the choice to pass the fee onto the consumer is a business decision and not mandated by the Federal Communications Commission, not all phone service providers charge a Universal Service fee.
Free Government Phones
Some companies offer free cell phones to qualified individuals/families. In addition to the free phones, they also provide free airtime. The amount of free airtime varies depending on cellular company and individual plan selected. While the free phones/service is made available to low income residents in many states, the service is not available in all states. The states that do not offer free government phones provide discounted land line services instead.
Discounted Phone Service
The monthly phone discounts vary depending on the state and whether or not the individual state contributes above and beyond the Federal Lifeline/Link Up program. Wile most states offer discounts above and beyond the Federal minimum, there are still a few states that do not. Monthly phone bills can range as low as $1 per month (offered by some phone companies in Oklahoma) to receiving a reduction of $13.50 or more off of the monthly bill.
Qualifying and Applying for the Lifeline/Link Up Program
Since the intention of these programs is to provide assistance to low income individuals and families, in order to qualify, candidates must participate in one or more of the following government assistance programs.
- Federal Public Housing Assistance – Section 8,
- Food stamps
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
- National School Lunch Program’s Free Lunch Initiative
- Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
This list is not an all encompassing list of programs. Check with the Public Utilities Commission website in your state to see which additional programs qualify.
Once the basic requirements are met, the next step is to complete the appropriate application. Each phone company has its own application which can either be downloaded from their website or sent through the mail upon request.
Words of Warning
Each family can enroll in one Lifeline program at a time. In other words, if an existing home land line is receiving discounts through a Lifeline program, in order to take advantage of the free government cell phone offer, the existing phone must be removed from the Lifeline program. .
Visit Free Government Phones.org for more information on free/discounted government phones and state specific requirements.