Cell phones: Fed program to give poor free phones

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) -- When 21-year-old Danny Chavez fills out a job application, he writes down his girlfriend's phone number as a contact. Chavez has no phone.

"I use her phone for the time being," said the unemployed Chavez.

Now Chavez and others in a similar position may have some help. Under a federal program called Lifeline, residents could get a free cell phone with 250 minutes and 250 text messages per month.

"That sounds like a good program, it would benefit a lot of people," Chavez said.

Established by the federal government in 1996, the Lifeline Assistance program provides land-line phone service for the poor. But up until now, it excluded cell phone service in California.

Last week, the California Public Utilities Commission expanded the program to include cell phones. Those who qualify are homeless people and other residents who can prove they earn less than $14,702 per year or California residents who receive Supplemental Social Security Income, food stamps, Medi-Cal and other types of public assistance.

"For the homeless, the advantage would be helping them stay connected," said Louis Medina, Homeless Project Manager with the Kern County Homeless Collaborative.

"It would be easier for a prospective employer to get ahold of them if they have a cell phone," said Medina.

The Lifeline Assistance program is funded through contributions by phone companies to the Universal Service Fund. Service providers charge a small fee added to most people's monthly phone bills called the Universal Service Fund fee.

But the program is also subsidized by the federal government, meaning taxpayers.

"I don't like it," said Bakersfield resident Kurt Frailey. "If it was only for emergencies that's something different. But letting them have free phones when we have to pay for ours, I'm not for that," he said.

Two phone companies are currently providing the cell phones. To apply for the Lifeline Assistance program, residents must first request a phone from either Assurance Wireless or Reach Out Wireless.

For more information contact one of the two companies offering the service:

Assurance Wireless: (800) 395-2171

Reach Out Wireless: (877) 777-1914