Yes, we said free government cell phones. There’s a little known government program called Lifeline Assistance that provides free cell phones and free minutes for needy Americans. And as the economy slows down, the program speeds up.
Here are ten surprising facts about free government cell phones and the people who have them.
1. Over 10 million free government cell phones are now in use. The program began in 1999 with landline phones, but since the first wireless phone was handed out in mid-2008 its growth has accelerated rapidly.
2. In 38 states, Washington DC and Puerto Rico, companies offer government cell phones. The program has come a long way quickly since it began in Tennessee in mid-2008 — expect coverage in all states soon.
3. You can qualify for a free government cell phone simply by accepting other government assistance. Medicaid, food stamps, SSI, National School Lunch, Section 8 Housing, etc. Don’t worry about providing proof. The program will take your word for it.
4. You can qualify for a free government cell phone in some states if your household income is 150% of the poverty level. Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island and Texas, to be specific. But in all the other states you can qualify with an income 135% of federal poverty guidelines.
5. It’s nicknamed the Obama Phone. Calling this the “Obama Phone” an inaccurate appellation, however, because contrary to the rumors the first free cell phone was doled out under President Bush, not President Obama.
6. Illegal aliens are welcome. The program’s rules don’t exclude non-U.S. citizens and there is no mechanism in place to verify citizenship. That will undoubtedly result in reduced funds available for Americans.
7. The world’s richest man in the biggest player. Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire and world’s richest man, owns Safelink Wireless, the original and largest company in the free government cell phone business.
8. The program is plagued with fraud. Here’s just one example out of many: The population of Puerto Rico is 4,000,000 and the government estimates that 200,000 of Puerto Ricans have fraudulent free phone accounts. More fraud means fewer free phones for those truly in need. Fortunately, the FCC is going after the fraud.
9. Oddballs. 38 states, Washington DC and Puerto Rico participate in the free government cell phone program. In 38 of those jurisdictions, the program provides a free cell phone and 250 free minutes per month. The oddballs? In California customers pay $1 for 1000 minutes, in Alaska they pay $1 for unlimited talk and text, and in Oklahoma it’s $2.50 for 250 minutes.
10. If you like the free government cell phone program, you’re going to love the free government internet program. Cheaper internet for the poor is already here, but now the FCC has proposed a new program to offer free internet and low-cost computers to America’s needy.
Bonus #11. The free government cell phone business is a growth industry. The program cost a relatively modest $800 million in 2008, but government “experts” estimate that it will exceed $1.5 billion in 2011. Don’t believe it. We think the final number will be closer to $2.0 billion.