Free Government Cell Phones: Lifeline for Low Income Americans

By | November 29, 2014

The government’s Lifeline Assistance Program gives out free government cell phones and monthly service — at no charge — to Americans in need of financial help. You may have heard this program derisively called “Obamaphone” in the media, but the fact is these services have been around a long time.


To clear up some myths about the Lifeline phone assistance program, here are the facts straight from the FCC at

“Since 1985, the Lifeline program has provided a discount on phone service for qualifying low-income consumers to ensure that all Americans have the opportunities and security that phone service brings, including being able to connect to jobs, family and emergency services. In 2005, Lifeline discounts were made available to qualifying low-income consumers on pre-paid wireless service plans in addition to traditional landline service. Lifeline is part of the Universal Service Fund.

Lifeline Program Provides Free Government Cell Phone Services to Low Income Families

The Lifeline program is available to eligible low-income consumers in every state, territory, commonwealth, and on Tribal lands. Consumers with proper proof of eligibility may be qualified to enroll.

To participate in the program, consumers must either have an income that is at or below 135% of the federal Poverty Guidelines or participate in one of the following assistance programs:

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Food Stamps or SNAP);
Supplemental Security Income (SSI);
Federal Public House Assistance (Section 8);
Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP);
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF);
National School Lunch Program’s Free Lunch Program;
Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance;
Tribally-Administered Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TTANF);
Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR);
Head Start (if income eligibility criteria are met); or
State assistance programs (if applicable).
Federal rules prohibit eligible low-income consumers from receiving more than one Lifeline discount per household. An eligible consumer may receive a discount on either a wireline or wireless service, but not both. A consumer whose household currently is receiving more than one Lifeline service must select a single Lifeline provider and contact the other provider to de-enroll from their program. Consumers violating this rule may also be subject to criminal and/or civil penalties.

The Lifeline program is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC). USAC is responsible for data collection and maintenance, support calculation, and disbursement for the low-income program. USAC’s website provides information regarding administrative aspects of the low-income program, as well as program requirements.

On January 31, 2012, the Commission adopted comprehensive reform and modernization of the Lifeline program. As a universal service program that fulfills Congress’s mandate to ensure the availability of communications to all Americans, Lifeline for the nearly 30 years, has helped tens of millions of low-income Americans afford basic phone service. Access to telephone service is essential for finding a job, connecting with family, or getting help in an emergency.

Highlights of FCC’s Lifeline reforms:

Changes to eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse, saving up to $2 billion over 3 years

Setting a savings target of $200 million for 2012, and $2 billion by the end of 2014.
Creation of a National Lifeline Accountability Database to prevent multiple carriers from receiving support for the same subscriber. The database built on FCC efforts in 2011 that eliminated nearly 270,000 duplicate subscriptions in 12 states following review of over 3.6 million subscriber records, saving $33 million. The database went live in January of 2014 and its now fully operational.
Increase the use of eligibility databases from governmental data sources, enabling fully automated verification of consumers’ initial and ongoing Lifeline eligibility. This would reduce the potential for fraud while cutting red tape for consumers and providers.
Establishing a one-per-household rule applicable to all providers in the program, defining household as an “economic unit” so that separate low-income families living at the same address can get connected.
Establishing clear goals and metrics to measure program performance and effectiveness.
Phasing out support for services such as Toll Limitation – subsidies to carriers for blocking or restricting long-distance service—and ending Link Up – subsidies to carriers for initial connection charges. Link Up will continue in Tribal lands.
Reducing burdens on carriers by establishing a uniform, interim flat rate of reimbursement, allowing carriers to obtain a subscriber’s signature electronically, and streamlining enrollment through uniform, nationwide eligibility criteria.
Modernizing Lifeline

Lifeline Government Phone Program Expands to Include Broadband Internet Access

Adopting an express goal for the program of ensuring availability of broadband for all low-income Americans.
Establish a Broadband Adoption Pilot Program to test and determine how Lifeline can best be used to increase broadband adoption among Lifeline-eligible consumers. Pilot projects funds will help reduce the monthly cost of broadband service, but applicants will be expected to help address other challenges to broadband adoption, including the cost of devices and digital literacy. In December of 2012, the Bureau selected 14 pilot projects, spanning 21 states and Puerto Rico. The pilots will end in November of 2014, and the Bureau expects to issue a report on the projects in 2015.
Build on FCC efforts to close the broadband adoption gap and address digital literacy, including the Connect-to-Compete initiative, which enlists government, non-profit, and private sector leaders to address broadband adoption barriers through digital literacy training and low-cost broadband availability.
Allow Lifeline support for bundled services plans combining voice and broadband or packages including optional calling features.”

So you see, it’s not fair to call this program “Obama Phones” or to say that president Obama is giving out cell phones to win votes. This is a much needed phone assistance program that helps low-income Americans get phone service. A lot of people dislike government programs and think everyone should “just get a job” and pay his own way. The fact is, we have a lot of working poor here in the United States. Some people work multiple jobs and can’t get by. Also, it is impossible to apply for and hold most jobs without a working telephone. In the year 2014, the most convenient phone to have is a cell phone.

26 thoughts on “Free Government Cell Phones: Lifeline for Low Income Americans

  1. Natasha Thomas

    I really need a cell to communicate with my my health-care physician’s and providers. Thank you.

  2. Tiffany Jones

    I really need a good reliable phone because as of right now me and my boyfriend have been struggling for over a year and can barely afford our bills we were homeless for a year and a half we just found a place and we can barely afford to pay a phone bill with all the other bills.

  3. Chrysta

    I receive foodstamps and ssi. Really in need of a phone can u chose what u get?

  4. Thomas turnage jr

    I get snap and medicaid I can’t afford a cell phone bill. I need a phone in case of emergency.

  5. Fetecia Johnson

    The one I have stopped working about 2 years ago. I am in desperate need of a phone.

  6. Mason Roach

    Need a phone with Internet preferably have 2 kids and 1 on the way. I have snap and need a phone asap

  7. kim timber

    Informative piece . I learned a lot from the analysis . Does someone know if my business can get ahold of a sample IRS 911 version to complete ?

  8. Heather Lawson

    Where can I get more information about free cell phones. I receive SSI and Food Stamps, etc.

  9. Pamela Holt

    Where can I get more information about free cell phones. I receive Medicaid and Food Stamps, etc.

    Reply ↓

  10. Crystal Bennett

    Needing a phone to look for work. I get food stamps and leap.


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