updated on 12/17/22
Many readers email us to ask if smartphones are available to free government cell phone customers. So many, in fact, that we decided it was time to give our readers a definitive answer. Well, as definitive as possible, that is.
We started by asking the USAC (the organization that governs the Lifeline free government cell phone program and the Affordable Connectivity Program) if companies are required to offer cell phones. After all, if one email to the USAC told us that all companies are required to offer smartphones, we would save many hours of research because we wouldn’t have to comb through a dozen companies’ websites and/or contact their customer service or media relations departments.
Alas, our query resulted in this disappointing answer from the USAC media relations department on December 12, 2022: “The Lifeline program only covers service, not phones or equipment. Service providers are not required to supply devices for their Lifeline customers. USAC and the FCC do not regulate the equipment for Lifeline providers who choose to offer phones/equipment as a marketing tool to attract new Lifeline consumers.”
Please allow us to translate: It’s the Wild West out there and any Lifeline/Affordable Connectivity Program service provider can offer any cell phone, from the least expensive to the most expensive, at any level of service.
What do we mean by “level of service?” Simple.
The Lifeline/Affordable Connectivity Programs offer three distinct levels of service: Lifeline plans, ACP plans, and Lifeline + ACP plans.
Lifeline, the most basic level of service, earns service providers a subsidy of just $9.25 per customer per month. Most companies cannot make a profit at that level, so very few of those plans offer free smartphones.
ACP plans, the next level up, earn service providers a subsidy of $30 per customer per month. More income for the service provider means they can afford to offer more services, so more often than not those plans may include upgraded smartphones.
Finally, Lifeline + ACP plans, the highest level of service, earn service providers the $9.25 per customer per month Lifeline subsidy PLUS the $30 per customer per month ACP subsidy. These plans typically offer smartphones as part of their offerings.
In short, you are more likely to receive a smartphone as you move up to an ACP plan or a Lifeline + ACP plan. Far more likely.
There are other ways to get a smartphone even if the plan in which you enroll does not offer one.
First, you can purchase an upgraded smartphone from your service provider. Every Lifeline/ACP company offers a dizzying array of smartphones at very reasonable prices. Instead of being the latest and greatest phones on the market, they are usually refurbished older phones like, for example, an iPhone 4 or equivalent Android phone. But quite honestly, in most cases the differences between one generation of smartphone and the next are almost not worth worrying about.
(NOTE: The editor of FreeGovernmentCellPhones is still using his original iPhone 3. The screen and case are both cracked, but the phone works as well as it ever did and does everything he needs a phone to do. In other words, an iPhone 4 or equivalent Android phone should beautifully serve most people’s needs.)
In addition, every Lifeline/ACP service provider also offers a BYOP (Bring Your Own Phone) program. If you have an older smartphone lying around the house, or if your sister or brother or uncle or next door neighbor gives you one they are no longer using, you can enroll with the company of your choice and use that smartphone as your Lifeline/ACP phone. Your service provider will gladly send you a SIM card to use in that phone.
NOTE: If you have access to such a smartphone, make sure you enroll with a service provider whose network is compatible with that phone. This is not the place to explain how to find the answer to that question. Have the phone with you when you enroll, and your service provider’s customer service rep should be able to talk you through it.
What is a smartphone?
The real question that needs to be answered is, ‘What is a smartphone?’
We noted that all Lifeline/ACP service providers now offer data plans. The editor of FreeGovernmentCellPhones asked our technical director for some clarification: ‘Would I be correct that if they offer a data plan, that by definition means they must offer smartphones?’
Our tech guys responded by saying that is NOT correct. Here’s the full answer:
Feature phones (also called basic phones) have the ability to send pictures in texts, on to Facebook, and Twitter, and other such places. That requires a data plan. Without a data plan, one can send a text message, but not with a picture attached, as that cannot go over the SMS (text message) network.
So that led me to check the definition of a smartphone (once again). It seems a lot of feature phones are ‘smart’ but not really smartphones. While there doesn’t seem to be a consistent definition, I think the proper definition is if a phone has a popular/powerful operating system (iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry OS), and allows you to install apps not created by the phone maker, then it is a smartphone.
Many of the feature phones can fool you into thinking they are smartphones (and I bet some of the Lifeline vendors stretch the definition of a smartphone) because they have touch screens, Facebook, photo galleries, etc.
So, I bet that if a Lifeline vendor is not highlighting what type of phone is given out, even if they offer a data plan, they do not offer a smartphone.
To summarize: Just because a Lifeline Assistance company says it offers smartphones does not necessarily mean those phones will provide you with the full, robust internet experience you are hoping for. It is incumbent upon you to inquire as to the capabilities of that ‘smartphone.’
Which service providers, which smartphones?
One disclaimer: This list is current as of the date this article was published. But as we observed earlier, the Lifeline/ACP world is like the Wild West. Things change very rapidly, and the list of service providers and the phones they offer may change overnight.
That being said, here’s a list of service providers and the models they currently offer:
- Access Wireless: LG K30, ZTE ZFive G, Alcatel Avalon V
- AirTalk Wireless: Samsung Galaxy J2 Pure, LG K8 Plus, ZTE Maven 3
- Assist Wireless: Samsung Galaxy A20, LG K30, ZTE Blade Vantage 2
- Assurance Wireless: Coolpad Legacy Go, ZTE Tempo X, Motorola Moto E5 Play
- Cintex Wireless: Samsung Galaxy J3 Achieve, LG Phoenix Plus, ZTE Blade Vantage 2
- Easy Wireless: Samsung Galaxy J3 Achieve, LG Phoenix Plus, ZTE Blade Vantage 2
- enTouch Wireless: Samsung Galaxy J3 Achieve, LG Phoenix Plus, ZTE Blade Vantage 2
- Infiniti Mobile: Samsung Galaxy J3 Achieve, LG Phoenix Plus, ZTE Blade Vantage 2
- Life Wireless: Samsung Galaxy A10e, LG Solo LTE, ZTE ZFive G
- NewPhone Wireless: Samsung Galaxy J3 Achieve, LG Phoenix Plus, ZTE Blade Vantage 2
- Q Link Wireless: Samsung Galaxy A01, LG Stylo 4, ZTE Cymbal-T
- Safelink Wireless: Samsung Galaxy A10e, LG Solo LTE, Alcatel Joy Tab
- SafetyNet Wireless: Samsung Galaxy A10e, LG Solo LTE, ZTE ZFive G
- StandUp Wireless: Samsung Galaxy J2 Pure, LG K8 Plus, ZTE Maven 3
- Tag Mobile: Samsung Galaxy J2 Pure, LG K8 Plus, ZTE Maven 3
- Tempo Communications: Samsung Galaxy A20, LG K30, ZTE Blade Vantage 2
- TerraCom Wireless: Samsung Galaxy J3 Achieve, LG Phoenix Plus, ZTE Blade Vantage 2
- TruConnect Wireless: Samsung Galaxy A10e, LG Solo LTE, ZTE ZFive G
- True Wireless: Samsung Galaxy A20, LG K30, ZTE Blade Vantage 2
In conclusion, every Lifeline Assistance/Affordable Connectivity Program service provider now offers free smartphones. But plans vary wildly and the ones that are available today may not be available tomorrow.
Some service providers make smartphones randomly available to new customers, but all the companies that offer them make them available as part of their ACP and/or Lifeline + ACP plan, as upgrades for an additional charge, or offer smartphone SIM cards for BYOP plans.
Make sure you know what you’re getting into when you upgrade to a “smart” phone, because not all smartphones were created equal. Some have far more capabilities than others, and it’s your responsibility to make sure you’re getting exactly the phone you need before you agree to pay for that upgrade.
One might even say that being an informed consumer is the “smart” thing to do.