Taxpayer Funded Free Cell Phones for CA Homeless
In California, the unemployment rate may be above 10.2%, and the state debt may be above $16 billion, the state’s GDP may be in serious trouble and businesses may be leaving in droves due to ever-increasing tax rates, but that isn’t going to stop the gravy train for the state’s poor and dispossessed. The California Public Utilities Commission is all set to greenlight a new program that would give homeless and low-income people free cell phones – call them Obamaphones – with free service. The idea is to help them reach out to possible job opportunities and stay connected with family.
San Francisco’s head of homeless initiatives, Bevan Dufty, was overjoyed: “This is great – it is transformative for homeless and low-income people. I expect San Francisco to be in the forefront and a model city for this program. Fundamentally, to be in the mainstream of our society you have to have a phone. And really, for the homeless population, you need a cell phone because they don’t have a home to hard-wire one into. We really need this plan.” Dufty is pushing an effort to allow the homeless to call 311 to find out where there’s an available bed at a homeless shelter.
The state has funded phones for the poor for years, but they were always hardline phones, not cell phones. The new program will give beneficiaries some 250 minutes of time and 250 free text messages every month.
What are the initial details of the plan?
Qualifying Californians pay an initial $20 fee to sign up for a monthly cell coverage plan. It offers 250 free minutes as well as 250 free text messages. From then on, the minutes and message count refill every month as long as the participant qualifies for the program. Assured Wireless -- the name of the plan devised by Virgin Mobile, KERN Radio notes -- has proposed this coverage to the CPUC.
Unlike the landline lifeline service, which only reduces a phone bill, this cell phone service is actually free of charge for participants. The company notes that plan participants can pay extra for international calling and for the purchase of additional minutes. The phone is free and network service is provided by Sprint. It is not known at this time if paying cell phone service customers will be charged a surcharge or fee to fund the program.
Who benefits from the free cell phone service?
The Coalition on Homelessness notes that those living on the streets will see an immediate benefit. "It's so huge if you're living outside you can dial 9-1-1 in the middle of the night; if you need to get in touch with your loved ones, you have a phone, if you're trying to get in touch with a potential employer," the Coalition on Homelessness' Jennifer Friedenbach explained. Low-income wage earners, too, benefit since they no longer have to take money from other budget line items to afford a cell phone.
What is the wage income maximum for a qualifying program participant?
Participants cannot earn more than about $15,000 per year to qualify for the free cell phone program.
Is this type of program new?
This is not a new program. There are already 36 states that offer cell phone lifeline programs. The California PUC has thus far been unwilling to approve the program for the State of California.
Why does California need free cell phone service in the first place?
Although the State of California does participate in the federal lifeline landline service via local phone service providers, the number of landlines in service has decreased by 43 percent since 2000. On the flipside, the number of cell phones in use has increased by 123 percent.
What do critics say?
As noted by KERN, there is a question of taxpayer and cell phone customer cost. In other states, Sprint contributes to the program. It then has the option of charging its paying customers a fee that funds the program.
What do proponents say?
As noted by 4-Traders, Assurance Wireless has crunched the numbers for the entire nation and purports, "If all 28.5 million adults eligible for Lifeline Assistance were to take advantage of the program and earn at the same rate and level as [the study] sample, it would result in $3.7 billion in fresh income for the poor and near poor."
What happens next?
As noted by the San Francisco Chronicle, the CPUC has already approved the Golden State's participation in the program. It now needs to work out the details of Assurance Wireless' promotional programs to advertise the free cell phone service. Program finalization is tentatively set for two weeks from now.