Tahlequah Daily Press

March 29, 2013

Phone discount a lifeline for many

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — In generations past, people who had telephone service needed the income to pay the bills – which could, at times, be substantial.

Since 1984, people who meet Federal Poverty Guidelines or are eligible for public assistance have had access to a telecommunications program known as Lifeline Assistance. The Federal Communications Commission program, which began under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, was then enhanced under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 when Bill Clinton was in the White House.

Lifeline support reduces the basic monthly landline charges for customers to rates as low as $10 per month. Federal rules prohibit eligible low-income consumers from receiving more than one Lifeline service per household. Lifeline also includes a Toll Limitation Service that allows a subscriber to limit the number of long distance calls that can be made.

When TracFone Wireless Inc. was given approval by the FCC to offer Lifeline assistance in 2008, Lifeline Link-Up, or Safelink Wireless, was born. This took place under George W. Bush’s presidency, or three months before Barack Obama moved into the White House, according to www.FreeGovernmentCellphones.net.

Tax dollars received by the government through a phone bill item listed as the “Universal Service Fee,” goes to help provide the reduced-fee landline service and an allotment of free airtime minutes made available through cellphones offered by Safeline Wireless, Assurance Wireless, Reachout Wireless, and Assist Wireless, among others.

Assist Wireless has a Tahlequah location, 1765 S. Muskogee Ave., and Store Manager Brandy Seay said the participant must meet certain requirements to be eligible for the free 1,000 talk and text minutes.

“They have to show proof of their assistance and have a current state-issued ID or driver’s license,” she said.

Public assistance programs noted on Assist Wireless’ website that qualify individuals for cellphone service include food stamps, Medicaid, Supplemental Social Security Income, Federal Housing Assistance, Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, National School Lunch’s Free Lunch Program, Temporary-Assistance for Needy Families, Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance, Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations, and Tribally Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Individuals who have a total house income at or below 135 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines set by the state can qualify for Assist Wireless service.

“It’s strictly just for assistance,” said Seay.

Tahlequah resident Glenda Pate lives on a reduced income and needs to access the support presented by Assist Wireless. She has a landline to avoid exhausting minutes provided by her cell service.

Pate is disturbed by the misinformation being circulated by people who blame Obama for what they deem is a free service for “deadbeats.” Elected officials are among those spreading the falsehoods.

Pate would nevertheless like to see the federal government take stronger measures to regulate abuse of the service and combat fraud.

“There’s no question the program is abused and willful fraud is committed. In the last quarter of last year, temporary vendors offering free cell phones could be seen in a number of locations in Tahlequah,” she said.

Pate empathizes with middle- and moderate-income taxpayers struggling to support their families and concedes the Universal Service Fee might be considered a tax.

“And I realize and acknowlede the existence of abuse and deliberate fraud in the program and advocate for stronger measures to curtail it,” she said. “But I confess that it really hurts on a personal level when I hear people say they’re tired of their tax money being used to pay for free cell phones. It makes me feel they’re grouping everyone together as abusers.”

Pate said Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., made a speech on the House floor condemning the service.

“He chose, and I quote, ‘the free call program that has angered people across Oklahoma, including myself’ as a particular example of federal wasteful spending. As I said, I strongly believe we need to clean up the program,” said Pate.

“However, his words - like the words of many of his constituents - made me feel that honest, low-income elderly and disabled people have no standing on his list of priorities. It made me feel that whatever our past contributions may have been and yet may be, we are somehow unworthy.”

Pate has early-onset Alzheimer’s and uses the cellphone to communicate with her children, who are sometimes unable to reach her through the landline.


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