Lifeline cell phone service may be expanded in state

Posted Oct. 05, 2009, at 8:55 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Poor Mainers would have access to what amounts to free cell phone service under a proposal pending before regulators.

The development was praised by Public Advocate Richard Davies.

“We approached TracFone because they have been offering a Lifeline program in other states through their prepaid cellular service,” he said. “They looked at it and came back and told us they were interested and they have filed to provide the service, and we hope they will be providing it sometime next year.”

Davies wants to make sure that poor Mainers have access to the Lifeline service as more Mainers are using cell phones, and many have only a cell phone.

Under the Public Utilities Commission program, a person who qualifies for food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Emergency Assistance Program or the Home Energy Assistance Program also qualifies for the phone subsidy of $13.50 per month.

The most recent Federal Communications Commission statistics indicate there are 882,000 cell phones in Maine, up from just under 400,000 in 2001. Landlines have decreased from 801,000 to 650,000. If national studies hold true for Maine, one in 10 have only a cell phone.

Davies said when Verizon Wireless bought Unicel earlier this year, the company decided not to continue the federal status needed to access money from the Universal Service Fund, which is used to pay for the Lifeline service and had subsidized the building of the Unicel tower network. The fund receives its money from a monthly fee on all phone and cell phone bills.

“Verizon did not want to deal with all the federal reporting requirements,” Davies said. “We were worried that there would be no cell phone Lifeline service because we approached U.S. Cellular, and they told us they were not interested. We just recently found out they are offering a Lifeline service.”

John Gockley, U.S. Cellular’s vice president for legal and regulatory matters, said there was a “communications gaffe” between U.S. Cellular and the Public Advocate’s Office and that the company has been offering the service since 2005, when it was certified to get the federal subsidy funds. He said the company is ready now to provide Lifeline service to the estimated 4,000 Mainers who lost Lifeline coverage when Unicel was bought.

“You can get the Lifeline discount, if you are eligible, on any of our retail plans,” he said. He said the plan identified in U.S. Cellular’s advertising as a Lifeline plan is for 300 minutes a month for $26.95. He noted the company does not use any federal subsidy to pay for its ads.

But Davies said the company has not “done a lot” to promote the service. Figures from the PUC indicate 1,049 Mainers were using U.S. Cellular’s Lifeline service while 58,498 were receiving a Lifeline subsidy through their local landline phone company, mostly FairPoint Communications.

“That’s not very many compared to how many are overall eligible,” Davies said.

Under the TracFone proposal, a person would get a phone and between 60 and 70 minutes a month with the federal subsidy paying the entire bill.

“We are the only one that [offers] it 100 percent free,” said Jose Fuentes, communications director for TracFone. He said the company calls its service Safelink because it provides a basic service that assures people the ability to call for help from friends or family or public safety agencies.

“The service is available through all the big national retailers like Wal-Mart and Target,” Fuentes said. “It’s easy to use and there are no long-term contracts.”

Gockley said the U.S. Cellular deal is better for many because it has more minutes and allows flexibility for the user to use the subsidy for a different plan.

There are many other cell phone companies operating in the state, but Davies said none has applied for the federal subsidy.

That may change if Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. has her way. She said cell phone companies are licensed by the federal government and have an obligation to operate in the public interest. She serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of telecommunications issues.

“One way or the other, we should ensure that action is taken by the Congress or the FCC, because these services are vital,” she said.

Snowe said as more Americans have a cell phone as their only phone, access to public safety and emergency services are jeopardized if Lifeline service is not available through any provider of phone or cell phone service.

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