June 22, 2018
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Low-income Mainers get cell phone access

By Russ Van Arsdale Executive director Northeast Contact, Special to the BDN

There’s a new phone option for low-income Mainers. It’s called SafeLink, and it has been offered in the Pine Tree State since April.

SafeLink is offered by Tracfone to people who receive benefits through either MaineCare, the Home Energy Assistance Program, Emergency Assistance Program, food stamps, Supplemental Security Income or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

The plan includes a free phone and 68 minutes of airtime a month. A SafeLink user who needs more time can purchase TracFone airtime cards at various retail stores.

The offer is good only as long as a person is eligible for one of the above programs. If eligibility ends, you must voluntarily cancel service. (If that happens, you can keep the phone but you’ll have to buy airtime from TracFone from then on.)

SafeLink is among the fastest-growing lifeline programs funded by the federally mandated Universal Service Fund. The fund operates on fees that most telephone customers pay across the country and supports phone and Web service for schools and libraries. Money in the fund also goes to two programs governed by the Federal Communications Commission: Lifeline, which provides discounts on monthly phone service, and Link-Up, which helps with the costs of telephone installation.

Critics on the right deride the program, referring to the free cells as “Obama phones.” Defenders say the program has been helping low-income and disabled people with the cost of their land line phones for years and that extending benefits to cellular use is just keeping up with the times.

The New York Times reported recently that more than 36 million people receive food stamps, an indication of Americans’ struggle to meet basic needs. People looking for work won’t get far if they don’t have a phone number where prospective employers can reach them.

TracFone isn’t the only wireless company in the game. Assurance Wireless is offering lifeline service in several states (not Maine) that includes 200 free monthly minutes. That may put pressure on TracFone to up its monthly allotment.

If not, the FCC may apply some pressure of its own. The commission has called for comments (due at month’s end) on Lifeline and Link-Up. Wayne Jortner, a senior counsel at the Maine Public Advocate’s Office, says he’ll be pushing for more minutes.

“It’s hard to argue with free service,” Jortner said recently, although he says the 68-minute monthly limit may be low for some users. He will urge the FCC to raise the free minimum.

Jortner also urges people to consider their options before going completely wireless. Land lines are more reliable generally than cellular service, and Jortner says a statewide calling plan through a land line provider may be more economical in the long run.

The Public Advocate has suggestions on wireless service at www.maine.gov/meopa/telephone/wireless_service.html.

Abusers of the program have offered their free phones for sale on Craigslist, much to the displeasure of regulators and providers alike. There’s no way to determine whether a sold phone goes to an eligible recipient. A TracFone attorney says the company takes the matter seriously, terminating any phones it finds have been listed for sale.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or go to http://necontact.wordpress.com.

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