One of the questions we’re asked most frequently here at FreeGovernmentCellPhones.net is, “When will California offer the free government cell phone program?”
It’s a reasonable question because while California has 15% of the population of the United States, it has nearly 30% of needy Americans.
Well, now there’s good news for low-income residents of the Golden State. SFGate.com reported that the Public Utility Commission is just weeks away from authorizing Sprint’s Assurance Wireless subsidiary to offer the Lifeline Assistance program. Of course, this is California we’re talking about, so it’s program is different than the Lifeline Assistance program offered in other states (more on that subject later in this article).
To be strictly accurate, California has flirted with the free government cell phone program prior to this. ReachOut Wireless offers a statewide variation of the program that gives customers a free phone, but charges them a minimal amount for minutes, and Telscape offers a similar program in the Bakersfield area.
It seems as if a remarkably worthwhile program like Lifeline Assistance for cell phones should have won quick approval. But despite the fact that the Lifeline cell phone program has been up and running successfully in 39 states, Puerto Rico and Washington DC, California PUC officials have taken three long years to review and approve Assurance Wireless’ application.
A skeptic might say this is a case of bureaucracy in action, but Bill Johnston, a CPUC telecommunications expert says, “This is a new, particularly complicated product. It’s not something you can do overnight.”
Assurance Wireless’ version of the free government cell phone program was approved last week. Now it’s just a matter of dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s in the bureaucratic language. The state wants to make sure Assurance promotes the program according to the state’s guidelines.
The need for the free government cell phone program has become glaringly obvious during this era of high unemployment and chronic underemployment. Landline usage by California’s phone customers dropped 43% in the last decade while cell phone subscriptions skyrocketed by 123%. Despite this clear evidence of the growing importance of cell phones, Assurance’s proposal has been languishing at the Public Utility Commission since 2009.
Like we said at the top of this article, California’s Lifeline Assistance program isn’t quite the same program that’s offered in most other states, but it’s close. Like the other states, California’s oddball regulations offer the “free” government cell phones only to people who qualify for the Lifeline Assistance. Then the state adds one more requirement on top of that – all customers must have existing phone service. (Note to California’s Public Utility Commission: If people could afford existing phone service, they wouldn’t need the Lifeline Assistance free government cell phone program.)
Instead of being free, Assurance Wireless customers will start off paying $20 for a Virgin Mobile cell phone and then pay 10 cents per minute. As SFGate.com reports, “Immediately, however, the customer will be rolled into Assurance Wireless’ Lifeline plan, which will provide 250 free minutes of talk time and 250 free text messages per month. The customer will then get the initial $20 back as a credit to be used whenever he or she exceeds the talk and text limits.” At the end of this convoluted process the Assurance customer ends up with a free phone and 250 free minutes per month, which is exactly what customers in most other states pay.
There will be a number of ways for low income Californians to qualify for the program. They have yet to reveal the details, but we assume they will be similar to the requirements in other states.
There’s an old saying that says, “An elephant is a horse designed by a committee.” Similarly, this is a free government cell phone program designed by a commission. In other words, it may not look exactly like what you wanted, but it’s still very useful.
Welcome to the free government cell phone business, California. Now please go back and get it right.