"I can't afford phone service! How will I stay in touch?"
Several years have passed since we were hit with a recession that left its mark on everyone's financial life. Even now, it's still difficult to generate a living wage with the many expenses you're expected to shoulder, including the phone bill. Some have downgraded their mobile plans, while others have done the unimaginable and abandoned their cell phones altogether. Fortunately, it doesn't have to end this way. Believe it or not, there are legal conditions under which customers can a receive a device with service from specific carriers -- at no cost.
Think for a moment on the impact this could have if more people knew how to take advantage of this perk. Phones are as necessary in today's world as food or water, providing lifelines to friends, family, coworkers, medical contacts and more. With lives depending on it, you almost wonder why the government isn't supplying free service more openly.
Government Provision of a No-Cost Device With Service
Mandated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an officially supported enrollment system exists for the financially challenged, called Lifeline Assistance. If you're eligible, the government will cover the costs of a new mobile phone with 250 minutes or more along with SMS, but oftentimes with limited or no data. Since the Assurance Wireless plan is being paired with California Lifeline, you could potentially have a limitless text and talk plan, a feature that is bound to gain traction in the coming years with other service providers.
As the economy continues to crumble, more Americans are joining the 12-15 million that have already enrolled.
The Lifeline program has existed since the 90's and was originally established by the FCC. The funding necessary to get the program in motion was offered by the Universal Service Fund, which had covered the expense out of the fees that had been tacked on to late telephone bills. In a bold show of generosity, these extra funds were funneled into discounted or waived telephone service for eligible citizens. Nowadays, this program has moved to cover both landline and mobile phone plans under the erroneous "Obama phone" header, although its inception is truthfully grounded in the Bush Administration.
Within six years, the Lifeline program has been discovered and utilized by millions of Americans across most of the country.
If you're leaning more toward a mobile computing experience, you won't have any control over the type of smartphone you receive, as the brand and model are randomly selected out of a bin of refurbished devices that are usually a year or two behind the times. These typically include Android devices that won't score top marks for processing power, camera quality or storage space. Given the waived expenses of the device and the plan, it's expected that the device and plan received will be a passable experience without the luxuries of the latest iPhone or Galaxy handset.
Do I Qualify?
49 states support the Lifeline program, alongside D.C. and Puerto Rico. The handsets and plans are offered by popular names in the mobile communications industry, including Assurance Wireless, Safelink Wireless and Budget Mobile. Their influence is far-reaching (even if you've never heard of these companies before), so chances are pretty good at least a couple cover your area.
You can check your eligibility here.
What Does it all Boil Down To?
You shouldn't expect a top-of-the-line device or service, but this is largely dependent on the company and the states it provides service to. It's sensible to do a little research and see what each company offers, especially if you're concerned about data bitrates; since not all enrolled citizens are concerned with mobile data, some companies may emphasize text and talk plans only.
The good news is, if you qualify in one state, you probably qualify in all of them. Eligibility for Medicaid, SSI and food stamps will generally be enough to get the ball rolling with the Lifeline program as well. If you're not enrolled with those programs, you can still get your foot in the door if your annual income is below a certain point. Believe it or not, earning considerably more than the poverty line can still qualify you for a free device with service.
If you were concerned that you wouldn't be able to afford a phone plan for job interviews, family communication or medical emergencies, have no fear -- you can get it covered through Lifeline Assistance.
We encourage you to check out more information on the companies involved and their offerings based on location and personal needs.
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