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Lifeline and Link-up, Free Phones and Free Cell Phones Programs from the Government

Starting in 2005, the Federal Government, in a partnership between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners (NARUC), started the Lifeline Across America national program.  While Lifeline has been in existence since 1985, the goal of this program is to sign up poor and low-income Americans into the government's Lifeline and Link-up free phone and free cell phone programs.

Many Americans do not have home phone service.  This is often because they are poor or low income and just can't afford either the initial phone set up and installation fees or the monthly service bills. 

Some facts from the FCC regarding the need for free phones and free cell phones for the poor and low income:

For many Americans, free phones and free cell phones are not a luxury.  Americans without free phones and free cell phones when they have no other means of obtaining are cutoff from the ability to make emergency 911 calls, call their family or neighbors for help and assistance, make or change medical appointments, call for transportation.  Of course people with disabilities make up a higher portion of low income Americans than the general population.  There is a real need for free government phones and cell phones for people with disabilities. 

 

 

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Who Can Qualify for Government Free Phones and Free Cell Phones?

Government provided free phones and free cell phones are available to Americans in every part of the U.S.  Each state determines what makes you eligible to receive a free government phone or free government cell phone.  Some states have their own Lifeline program and can come up with their own criteria regarding eligibility.  Those states that do not have their own Lifeline low income phone program and are using the federal Lifeline and Link-Up free phone and free cell phone government programs, low income consumers must either have an income that is at or below 135% of the federal Poverty Guidelines, or participate in one of the following assistance programs:

Residents of Native American Indian and Alaska Native tribal communities qualify for enhanced Lifeline and Link-Up support if they meet one of the criteria listed above, qualify under their stateís Lifeline program (if their state has its own Lifeline program), or participate in one of the following assistance programs:

For household income to be at or below 135% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, total income for the household must not be more than the following:

Number of People
 In Your Family

Lower 48 / DC

Hawaii

Alaska

1

$14,702  

$16,929

$18,360

2

$19,859  

$22,856

$24,813

3

$25,016  

$28,782

$31,266

4

$30,173  

$34,709

$37,719

5

$35,330  

$40,635

$44,172

6

$40,487  

$46,562

$50,625

7

$45,644  

$52,488

$57,078

8

$50,801  

$58,415

$63,531

These income levels are based on data from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). For each additional person in the household beyond eight, add the following dollar amounts to the income eligibility requirements: $5,157 for persons living in the Lower 48 and D.C., $6,453 for Alaska, and $5,927 for Hawaii.

 

 


What exactly are Lifeline and Link-up, the Free Phone and Free Cell Phones Government  Programs?

 


Who Pays so That Low Income Americans Can Get Subsidized Government Free Phones and Free Cell Phones?

The federal Universal Service Fund (USF) pays for the government subsidized free phone and free cell phone programs, Lifeline Assistance and Link-Up America.  The Low Income Program of the Universal Service Fund is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC).  All telecommunications service providers (wireline phone companies, wireless phone companies, paging service companies, and certain Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers) pay to the federal USF based on a percentage of their interstate and international end-user telecommunications revenues.  The telecommunication companies in turn pass these fees onto the American consumers.  To connect the dots, the program is funded by the USF, which in turn is funded by the telecommunication companies, which in turn in is funded by American consumers as the telecommunication companies, while not required to do so, do in fact mostly pass these costs along to all their consumers (except the ones participating in the Lifeline and Link-Up programs).  So ultimately American telecommunication consumers pay for the government subsidized free phone and free cell phone programs, Lifeline and Link-Up.  Some companies who are involved in subsidized government free cell phones point out that the free cell phones that they give to low income Lifeline and Link-up consumers are not funded by the USF and therefore not funded by the American taxpayers.  This is absolutely true.  The USF is not funded through taxes, rather it is funded by fee that the telephone and wireless companies pass along to their consumers.  It would be sort of like instead of paying a state gas tax, the state all of a sudden changed it to a highway use fee, but now said it was no longer a "tax".  Ultimately it's the same thing but words do matter.  If you also think about it for a second, almost any wireless carrier is willing to give away a free cell phone to any of their subscribers, totally unrelated to the free government cell phone programs of Lifeline and Link-Up.  Most cell phone users choose to upgrade their cell phone to a better model but there is almost always a free cell phone option that is available.  That's the nature of the cell phone industry business model, it's the monthly service plan where the wireless carriers make their money.  The fact is that even if a wireless company gives away free cell phones for use by low income participants in the Lifeline and Link-up programs, they are overall making money with the government subsidized service charges and set up fees, plus I'm sure many low income consumers simply pay the wireless companies beyond the maximum monthly service charge subsidy of $10.  The bottom line is that if you take away the USF, which is largely funded by American consumers in the form of fees not taxes, and therefore the Lifeline and Link-Up free government phone and free government cell phone programs, wireless companies would cease to participate in the free government cell phone programs.  And then you have to understand that the whole point of the program is to help ensure all Americans, regardless of lack of income, have a minimum level of communications so that they call call emergencies, doctors, family, friends, etc.  

 


What is the Size of the Subsidized Government Free Phones and Free Cell Phones Programs, Lifeline and Link-up?

 


What benefits have we seen from the Subsidized Government Free Phones and Free Cell Phones Programs, Lifeline and Link-up?

According to the FCC:

Conclusions:  If we spend money, market, and make available free government phones and free cell phones, low income Americans will use the programs such as Lifeline and Link-up and enjoy the safety and security that a free phone or free cell phone from the government provides.  The number of low income Americans who now have access to all the safety benefits provided by free government cell phones and free government phones has increased significantly since the start of the Lifeline Across America national program.  Local phone and cell phone service is required for the safety of all Americans.   

 


I think I'm eligible, How do I sign for Free Phones or Free Cell Phones from the Government?

The first place to start is usually contacting your local telephone provider.  In other states, low income consumers must apply for Lifeline and Link-up programs through a designated state agency or third party administrator.  The best place to find out how to sign up is at the Universal Services Fund website titled, Apply for Lifeline and Link-Up Program Support.  On the USF website, for each state, a link to the application procedure, brochure, or who to contact is provided. 

 


Frequently Asked Questions About Lifeline and Link-Up, Free Phones and Free Cell Phones Programs from the Government

Can I use both Lifeline and Link-Up together at the same time?  Yes.  If you don't currently have telephone or cell phone service, you can use both Lifeline and Link-Up.  If you already have telephone or cell phone service, then you can't use Link-Up, but you can use Lifeline.

Can my Lifeline free cell phone or free phone service be cut off or stopped if I don't pay my long distance bill?  The telephone provider cannot cut off local service if you don't pay your long distance bill.  However, your long distance service will be blocked until you pay your bill.  

What if I have a low credit rating, can I still get a free phone or free cell phone from the government?  Yes you can still get your free government phone.  The telephone company may block long distance service however.

What if I have an unpaid telephone bill?  Can I still participate in Lifeline and Link-Up to get a free government cell phone?  Yes, the telephone company can require that you pay any local telephone service bills prior to providing you with a free government phone or free government cell phone but can't make you pay any outstanding long distance charges.  The telephone company can however block your long distance service from your free government phone or free government cell phone until any outstanding long distance bills are paid. 

Does participation in the Lifeline and Link-Up free government phone programs affect my eligibility for other government services like SSI, Medicaid, food stamps, housing, etc.?  No participation in Lifeline and Link-Up does not in any way affect your eligibility or participation in any other program.

Are Lifeline and Link-Up free government phone programs just for the elderly? disabled?  No, eligibility requirements  for Lifeline and Link-Up is determined by each state but in all cases it is open to all Americans regardless of age or disability rating. 

What if I already have a phone, can I still qualify for Lifeline and Link-Up and get my free government phone?  No, the Lifeline and Link-Up benefits are available to only one telephone per household. 

What if I already have a land line phone, can I still qualify for Lifeline and Link-Up and get a free government cell phone?  No, the Lifeline and Link-Up benefits are available to only one telephone (whether land line or cell phone) per household. 


Who can Provide Free Phones or Free Cell Phones from the Lifeline and Link-Up Government Programs?  

There are over 1,700 telephone companies that participate in the Lifeline and Link-Up government programs providing free phones and free cell phones.  In addition many wireless cell phone carriers are authorized to participate in the program to serve low income Americans.  Which specific companies and cell phone providers are authorized to provide free government cell phones and free government phones is usually left up to the the individual state.  At the state level the program is regulated by a state agency. 

The best place to find out how which specific telephone and cell phone providers are authorized is at the Universal Services Fund website titled, Telephone Assistance Programs for Low Income Households.  On the USF website, for each state, a pull down tab will show all the authorized telephone and cell phone carriers who can provide free government cell phones and free government phones

You'll notice that a lot of the big cell phone carriers like T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon Wireless are probably on your state's list as being authorized to provide free government cell phones to low income Americans.  In addition there are some niche cell phone providers who have been created to specifically serve the Lifeline and Link-Up low income consumers.  The largest being Safelink Wireless.  Safelink Wireless is owned by TracFone Wireless which is the largest prepaid cell phone provider in the US.  As of October 2009, SafeLink has over 2 million customers and is available in 33 states - Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, DC, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.  It is second only to AT&T in serving Lifeline Link-Up low income consumers. 

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