Battle heats up in Lifeline mobile market: Assurance Wireless gaining on Safelink

When you think of the free government cell phone program, what company comes to mind? Probably Safelink Wireless, and for good reason.

Safelink, a subsidiary of prepaid wireless phone company Tracfone, was the first company approved to provide cell phones to the low-income and otherwise needy in the United States under the federal-mandated Lifeline/Link-Up program. They got a huge head start in the business and now account for almost four million of the over six million total free mobile phone recipients.

Safelink undisputed leader, but Assurance is gaining rapidly

safelink, assurance, reachout revenue totals

But the competition is heating up, with fast growing Assurance Wireless, a subsidiary of Sprint/Nextel’s Virgin Mobile, hot on the heels of Safelink. And behind Assurance is ReachOut Wireless, a Nexus Communications company. Dozens of other smaller companies serve a state here and there, but are too small to warrant our attention at this point.

We’ve asked each of the big three for their subscriber numbers, but they declined to reveal that information, saying those figures were confidential. Our solution? We scoured through reams of data, and calculated the numbers for ourselves. We begin with the total revenues from the Lifeline program for the month of March 2011.

Lifeline Wireless Phone Revenue for Month of March 2011:

Safelink Wireless: $32,079,925
Assurance Wireless: $15,620,447
ReachOut Wireless: $ 6,303,750

The government pays each of the three companies for each subscriber, for each month of service. There are three tiers of payments (four if you include a much larger fourth tier for those on Indian land) and it’s difficult to know which tier each of the subscribers fall into. We will use an average of $8.50 per subscriber across the country and will use this to estimate the number of subscribers for each company as of month ending March 2011.

Lifeline Wireless Phone Company Subscribers, March 2011 (est.):

Safelink Wireless: 3,774,109 subscribers
Assurance Wireless: 1,837,700 subscribers
ReachOut Wireless: 741,618 subscribers

These numbers show Safelink Wireless is the undisputed leader with roughly twice as many subscribers as Assurance Wireless, which in turn has more than twice as many subscribers as ReachOut Wireless.

The ranking is exactly what we would have predicted, but the important question is how are the three companies trending?

The answer? It’s trending in favor of Assurance Wireless in a very big way.

Assurance didn’t get into the free cell phone business until early 2010, so it would be an unfair comparison to calculate growth rates from that point since any jump from zero would show stratospheric numbers. So we’ve calculated subscriber growth for the last three months of data available: January through March 31, 2011. Assurance Wireless already had about a 1.5 million subscribers at the beginning of the year, so that allows us to do an apples-to-apples comparison of growth rates. And here you go:

Lifeline Wireless Phone Subscriber Growth Rates 1/1/11 – 3/31/11

Assurance Wireless: 23.18%
ReachOut Wireless: 13.66%
Safelink Wireless: 2.47%

As you can clearly see, Safelink Wireless still holds the lead. But the lead is narrowing with Assurance Wireless’ high growth rate. Some states have Safelink as their only choice, and the other two players are working to compete in them. Once in, their growth should accelerate.

People Googling Assurance at 4X the rate of Safelink

There’s yet another clue pointing to Assurance’s rapid growth: Google searches for each of the three competitors. We used what’s called the Google Keyword Tool to check the number of “exact match” queries for each company. The numbers are astounding.

Queries for the Lifeline Wireless Phone Companies:

Assurance Wireless: 74,000
ReachOut Wireless: 18,100
Safelink Wireless: 8,000

(Note: For ReachOut Wireless, we added together the results for both “ReachOut Wireless” and “Reach Out Wireless.”)

The Future

The Google search numbers, plus the documented growth rates, leads us to the conclusion that there may well be some interesting changes on the leaderboard over the coming months.

We’ll keep you abreast of this changing data each month, so check back often. Bookmark our site, and subscribe to our feed either with email delivery or via RSS.


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  1. Sahara says

    The Safelink (govt’ approved free cell phones) phone I have has truly saved my life on more than a few occasions. I am legally blind with little to no residual vision remaining in addition systemic lupus erythematosus, Sjogren’s Disease, Fibromyalgia, and corneal inflammation on top of problems that are compromising/helping my body rebel against itself. I began losing my sight from a recessive gene that’s degenerative in nature and runs in the family though hasn’t been active for something like 6 to 7 generations and even then there’s no guarantee if the particular family member in question was simply blind or had the same disease but he was the only one who has been blind.

    I cannot walk far and I am always in fear that because of my lack of sight and the pain in my joints won’t allow me to get back home if they begin to hurt so bad I can’t go any farther to get home. At least with the Safelink phone, I can call for help to take me home when this happens.

    My husband cannot work b/c he had 2 massive heart attacks and a stroke requiring him to undergo a quadruple heart bypass that saved his life but left his heart permanently damaged. Stress of any type can cause him to have another heart attack & if that happens, it could and likely will kill him (according to his doctors b/c of the damage to his heart). In addition, the fact that his heart is damaged is causing problems allowing enough oxygenated blood to get to his extremities causing major pain and difficulty getting about as he did prior to the heart attacks. Diabetes, Type I is now classified as an autoimmune disease b/c it acts just as my autoimmune diseases. It’s causing his body to rebel against itself and over a course of time, like me as well as him, it will cause our death once it begins damaging our vital organs only he’s already had damage to his heart, which is a vital organ so he’s more than qualified for disability only we have been fighting with the help of a law firm to get him on SSDI so we can survive easier than we are now b/c my SSDI can’t pay all the bills.

    Before anyone says anything, neither of us caused, wanted, nor desired to live with these diseases. We just happened to have them through no fault of our own. Each of us has approx 30+yrs of working to our names and I was even able to return to work from home as a medical transcriptionist for a national MT company only the nerve damage from the autoimmune diseases damaged the ulnar nerve in my right arm that causes pain in my hands as well as loss of sensation (complete loss now) of the latter 3 fingers along with grip strength. The pain became so bad and is even worse now that there is no way I can return to work again as much as I would love to have my sight back, my driver’s license, and a job to go to each day regardless of what type of job I can find and my husband feels the same way; however, it doesn’t matter how much the mind wishes this to be a reality, the mind is willing but the body simply cannot follow along. It’s like explaining grief of the death of a loved one at an old age. The mind understands the person lived a long and full life but when it comes to understanding the pain of the death along with the grief that follows, reason is something the mind may understand but it will always have a difficult if not impossible time explaining it to the heart.

    Just my 2 cents worth.

  2. irene zielinski says

    i’ve been notified that because i belong to lifeline i can no longer have safe link. will i be allowed to have Assurance

    • Free Government Cell Phones says

      No, only one free or discounted phone per household. That includes landlines and cell phones combined.

    • Shawna Doran says

      I’m sorry, but the answer is NO….each household, no matter how many in that home, may only have one governmentally funded phone. If you get caught trying to apply through multiple companies, you can and will loss your ability to have any service in the future :( Please do not attempt this as it is fraud…

    • Veronica says

      This is not entirely true. You can have both at the same address if they operate as two different households. Such as prepare food separately.

  3. LJM says

    I switched from Safelink to Assurance due to the former’s TERRIBLE customer service and I have had nothing but good experiences dealing with Assurance since. Assurance also usually responds pretty quickly on their FB page too. Better customer service may be one reason for the gains.