Sunday, August 24, 2008

Free cell phones offered to poor Tenn. residents

By LUCAS L. JOHNSON II updated 3:51 p.m. CT, Fri., Aug. 15, 2008 NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A cell phone company is offering free wireless phones and 68 minutes of free air time to more than 800,000 low-income Tennessee residents in a program aimed at ensuring they can make a call in an emergency. Prepaid cell phone provider TracFone Wireless Inc. announced Friday that it's launching its SafeLink Wireless program in Tennessee, which officials said would become the first state to have widespread, free emergency wireless service for poor people. SafeLink provides eligible low-income households with a cell phone, access to 911 emergency services and 68 minutes of free air time for up to a year before customers have to reapply. If customers run through their 68 minutes, they can still call 911 — which is a free call — and they can purchase additional minutes for other calls at a discounted rate, said Jose Fuentes, director of government relations for Tracfone Wireless. The cell phone's standard features include voicemail, text capability, call waiting, international calling to over 60 destinations and caller ID. The Federal Communications Commission recently authorized TracFone to provide SafeLink, the company's version of the federally subsidized program Lifeline. Other carriers are certified to use Lifeline, but they provide discounts on wireless service, rather than free service. Fuentes said the program will aid more than 800,000 low-income households in Tennessee. Safelink can offer the free service because of a government subsidy of $10 per customer, to which the company adds $3.50. Fuentes said other carriers are aware of the benefits of Lifeline but don't broadly advertise them. John Taylor, a spokesman for Sprint Nextel Corp., one of the nation's top three carriers, disputed Fuentes' claim of sparse advertisement. He said Sprint participates in the Lifeline program by offering a discount on services and advertises on its Web site and through print, such as mailings. According to the FCC, 21 million households across the country qualify for Lifeline. "I'm elated that this program is providing needy families with access to basic cell phone service," said Democratic House Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry of Memphis, which has the state's highest low-income population. Fuentes said families may qualify if their household income is not above 135 percent of the federal poverty level, and if they receive assistance through government programs such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. Nicholas P. Sullivan, a visiting scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, recently released a study analyzing the impact of mobile phones on low-income households. He said the troubled economy makes the phones even more of an asset. "Our study showed cell phones can significantly boost the earning potential of these communities, and this connectivity vastly encourages their opportunities and remains central to their everyday survival," Sullivan said. According to his study, 40 percent of people in blue-collar jobs say their cell phone has provided an opportunity to gain employment or make money. However, Sullivan said what he found most interesting was the emphasis on "emergency use." The study found: _ A cell phone is preferred to a landline phone for mobility and security, and is preferred to a landline phone for emergency use by a 3-1 ratio. _ 48 percent have used their cell phone to call or text. _ 20 percent have received an emergency call or text on their cell phone. _ 32 percent have purchased a cell phone for a relative to use in an emergency. Tennessee Safety Commissioner Dave Mitchell agrees a cell phone is a valuable safety tool, especially when someone is traveling. "This program will allow drivers to call 911 if they encounter an emergency or get stranded while on the road," he said. "I am thrilled that Tennessee is the first state in the country to offer this program and help keep our citizens safe." Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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