While it seems cell phones are permanent fixtures on everyone's ears, there's a large segment of the population who has to go without them. But an update to a Federal Communication Commission (FCC) program provides free cell phone services to low-income individuals, and Louisiana residents can now take advantage of the program.
The prepaid wireless phone provider runs its SafeLink program in 23 states and lunched the program in Louisiana in February. The program, an offshoot of the FCC national Lifeline program that subsidizes landlines, provides qualifying individuals with cell phones outfitted with 68 airtime minutes per month instead of a landline. Money for the program comes from the Universal Service Fund, to which the FCC requires all telecommunications companies to contribute. Phone carriers often pass on the fee to their customers, meaning a large portion of customers pay for Lifeline.
Jose Fuentes, government relations director for TracFone, estimates only 10 percent of eligible Louisiana residents opted to take advantage of the subsidized landlines in the past. "That's why when we came into the state, we wanted to ... inform the public they have a choice now when it comes to Lifeline services," he says. "People have the option of, 'Do you want a free landline, or do you want a cell phone?' It's up to them."
Having a cell phone is critical in today's society, Fuentes adds.
"If you don't have an answering machine and an employer is calling you, or if there's an emergency and they're trying to reach you at home and you don't have a cell phone, it's heartbreaking," he says. "You can miss a lot of opportunities. Having a cell phone is paramount in improving the life of an individual."
TracFone says at least 169,598 households in Orleans Parish are eligible for these cell phone services, and Louisianans can qualify if they participate in a number of government programs such as Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Signing up for for the program entails visiting Safelink's Web site (www.safelink.com) or calling 800-SAFE-LINK, but Fuentes suggests using a library or friends' computers to apply.
The Metropolitan Center for Women and Children in New Orleans knows the importance of free cell phones. Metro activist and volunteer coordinator Terrie Thompson says the center collects donated phones, and she always reminds people of the FCC law requiring all phones to be able to dial 911, even if they lack active phone service. But Thompson says a program like SafeLink sounds "fantastic," and says free cell phones would empower battered women.
"When you're dealing with a domestic violence situation, it's about power and control," she says. "Often, the woman is not even allowed access to a phone. After (her abuser) leaves for work, there's no way to be in touch."
Thompson believes having a phone could mean saving a life.
"Everyone needs access to a phone," she says.