‘Pop-up stores’ providing free phones bring awareness to federal program

  • Posted: Monday, February 4, 2013 10:18 p.m.
    UPDATED: Tuesday, February 5, 2013 7:15 a.m.
Staff photo by John-Michael Garner
People line up at a tent Monday to receive a free cell phone through the federal Lifeline program. The phones are for qualified recipients and are limited to 250 minutes a month.
Staff photo by John-Michael Garner People line up at a tent Monday to receive a free cell phone through the federal Lifeline program. The phones are for qualified recipients and are limited to 250 minutes a month.

Dozens of locals descended upon the parking lot outside of Save-a-Lot on York Street Monday to make use of the government’s cell phones free cell phone program.

The phones, often referred to colloquially as “Obama phones,” are provided through the Lifeline program, which was established in 1985 to provide low-income people with telephone service.

In 1996, the Universal Service Fund was created to subsidize the program; and, last year, the FCC created a national database to verify Lifeline eligibility for customers.

“These are basic handsets,” said Paul Donsky, the media contact for Life Wireless, a company that provides the mobile-phone service through Lifeline. “They’re not smartphones, and the minutes are limited to 250 a month, which works out to about an hour a week. They’re intended primarily to be used for emergencies and other basic communication needs.”

Keisha Williams of Aiken was one of the local residents who lined up to receive a phone Monday. She said she has several friends who have used Lifeline and described the process of getting a free phone as an easy one.

“It’s activated, they give it to you in a bag, and you walk away,” she said.

Desi Nash, another Aiken resident, said the tent set up outside Save-a-Lot had been open since Friday.

“Pop-up stores” like the one found on York Street are intended to bring awareness to the Lifeline program, Donsky said.

Research has shown that many low-income people do not realize that Lifeline’s services are available to them, he said.

Eligibility requirements for prospective Lifeline subscribers vary by state, but according to a Life Wireless document, those with a household income up to 135 percent of the federal poverty level or receiving government assistance from a select list of programs are eligible for service.

The phones are limited to one per household, Donsky said.

Lifeline has been met with plenty of opposition from Republican leaders, such as Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who said in December that the program, which cost the government $1.6 billion in 2011, is contributing, in part, to the country’s financial troubles.

But others, like Nash, said Lifeline meets vital needs for underprivileged employment-seekers.

“For people that need a little bit of assistance, it’s a real good thing,” he said.

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