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A cellphone plan to bridge digital divide

Firms and feds offer free connections to customers shut out by high costs.

By Amy FarnsworthStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 2009

Julia Gran

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A year ago, Christina Beck had no access to a telephone. The single mother of a 2-year-old son, she could no longer afford her monthly phone bills and was forced to use her roommate’s work cellphone to make doctor’s appointments or call her family.

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Then, sitting in front of the television in her Boston apartment one evening, Ms. Beck saw an advertisement for SafeLink Wireless, a program launched by prepaid cellphone provider TracFone Wireless that provides free mobile service for low-income individuals.

Beck applied online at her local library. Five days later, the phone, equipped with 80 minutes of free call time per month, arrived in the mail.

“When I saw [the ad] and saw that it was free, I thought it was wonderful,” says Beck, who qualifies for welfare benefits. “It helps people out like me ... people who can’t afford phones.”

While “the digital divide” often refers to computers, low-income families also struggle with a divide over phones. Potential employers and emergency services often revolve around telephone lines, but some 6 million Americans – almost 2 percent of households – go without them. SafeLink Wireless has helped bridge that gap in 17 states.

SafeLink grew out of the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program, launched in 1984 to provide discounted land line access for low-income families. But “traditionally [Lifeline programs] have been under-utilized,” says FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield. In 1996 the government expanded the service to mobile phones to “help boost participation in the Lifeline program and ... give low-income families an option for phone service that met their needs.”

Other cellphone carriers – Sprint and AT&T – offer discounted cellphone services through the Lifeline program. Tracfone says it is the first to offer free cellphone service through the $10-per-customer government subsidy.

In July, Virgin Mobile USA plans to begin providing its own free cellphones for qualifying Lifeline residents in New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

The TracFone program began last August in Tennessee, providing free phones to residents who participate in state or federal assistance programs or individuals whose total household incomes are at or below 135 percent of the poverty guidelines set by the state or government.

The program has since grown to include 17 states and more than 13 million eligible customers, says Jose Fuentes, director of government relations for TracFone Wireless. He would not say how many have actually signed up.

This month, the program expanded to Alabama, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.

The allotted minutes vary by state from 41 minutes to 80 minutes, and any unused time rolls over to the next month. If a family goes over the allotment, it can purchase a TracFone Airtime card at a local retailer.