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Lifeline Program Providing Subsidized Cell Phones for the Poor

Even for the homeless and destitute, communication increasingly depends upon technology, leaving those without access out of the loop. And while Google has helped get the homeless set up with voice mail (using its former Grand Central service), and some cities (like New York and San Francisco) are getting the homeless connected to the Internet, one modern convenience has seemed out of reach: the cell phone.

But a decades-old federal program called Lifeline, which subsidizes phone service for the poorest in the nation, has recently been expanded to offer limited, pre-paid cell phone service, the New York Time reports. Companies like Sprint, AT&T, and Tracfone are getting in on the program, and some insiders are referring to the grossly underprivileged as the providers' only untapped U.S. market. "And the race is on to get them," Nielsen analyst Roger Entner told the New York Times.

The program, which costs the government about $10 per month, per person, offers qualifying individuals a free cell phone and about 68 minutes of service. Since November, the number of people taking advantage of the service has doubled to 1.4 million, reflecting the growing number of people eligible for such assistance due to the downturn of the economy.

While Lifeline is available nationwide, individual states typically exercise some control over the program's implementation. At present, one provider has only found success offering its subsidized phones in 16 states. Tracfone's subsidized service, called SafeLink, can be used in New York, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, among others. California's public utilities commission, for instance, has not yet decided whether or not to offer cell phones in conjunction with its Lifeline program, and is preparing to debate the matter this week.

Cell phones can clearly give a leg up to those who have fallen on hard times; unlike a landline phone, a cell phone can be used in an emergency outside the home, and can make the unemployed much more accessible to a potential employer. With 90-percent of the population having at least one cell phone, subsidizing the cost of the needy's service isn't even about leveling the playing field; it's just about getting those folks on the field to begin with. [From: New York Times]

Tags: government, homeless, lifeline, poor, poverty, prepaid, subsidies, top

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