Cell phones

By Cynthia Hubert
Published: Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 – 7:04 am

The poorest of the poor in California soon will have easier access to one of society’s modern conveniences: the cellphone.

A federal program designed to help homeless and other impoverished people connect with family, friends, housing programs and potential employers will provide potentially millions of Californians with free cellphones and service, officials said this week.

The phone giveaways, approved last week by the state Public Utilities Commission, undoubtedly will be controversial, officials acknowledged. But backers said they believe the program will improve quality of life for Californians who cannot afford phones.

“In this day and age, having access to communications is not a luxury,” said Jayne Wallace, whose company, Assurance Wireless, will organize phone distribution in the state. “Having a cellphone can make a huge difference in the lives of many people,” including seniors and the disabled, she said.

California residents who receive Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, food stamps and other aid will be eligible for the federal “Lifeline” program, as well as those whose annual incomes are below $15,000, officials said. Roughly 4.6 million California households could be eligible, based on rough estimates by Assurance.

Logistics of how and when phones will be distributed have yet to be worked out, but the program should be in place early in 2013, they said.

“We’re thrilled about this,” said Joan Burke of Loaves & Fishes, the Sacramento area’s largest provider of services to homeless people. “It will make it so much easier for people to look for places to rent, pursue jobs and reconnect with their families.

“We often have families coming to Loaves & Fishes or calling us, because they know their relative is out here but they don’t have a way to contact them. So this is about the best Christmas news we could ever have.”

California has helped pay phone bills for poor people since 1985, and that program currently serves about 1.5 million people. But until now the service has covered only landline, or traditional, telephones wired to homes, said PUC spokesman Andrew Kotch.

The federal program, created by congressional mandate, is funded through contributions by telephone companies to the Universal Service Fund. Companies can recoup part of their contributions through fees charged to paying customers.

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