How to Get the Government to Cover Your Cell Phone Bill(s)

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Maybe the federal government paid the bill for some of these phones.

Last year, a federal program paid out $1.6 billion to cover free cell phones and the monthly bills of 12.5 million wireless accounts. The program, overseen by the FCC and intended to help low-income Americans, is popular for obvious reasons, with participation rising steeply since 2008, when the government paid $772 million for phones and monthly bills. But observers complain that the program suffers from poor oversight, in which phones go to people who don’t qualify, and hundreds of thousands of those who do qualify have more than one phone.

Last summer, a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review story shed some light on a government program that relatively few Americans knew existed. (Read more about it here.) The Lifeline program provides low-income Americans with free cell phones (basic ones such as those made by Tracfone, not smartphones) and covers up to 250 free minutes each month. As many as 5.5 million residents in Pennsylvania alone could qualify for the program, which is funded primarily by the Universal Service Fund fee added to the bills of land-line and wireless customers.

The program came to be after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed, and the FCC created the Universal Service Fund to help “to promote the availability of quality services at just, reasonable, and affordable rates,” among other things. All telecommunications carriers must pay into the fund, and many do so by tacking on a fee to each of their customers’ bills. It’s probably added into your monthly wireless bill and your landline bill, if you still have one.

The Universal Service Fund provides discounts on phone services, or in some cases, entirely free services to low-income Americans. The fund helps pay for landlines or cell phones, whichever the recipient prefers. There’s also a one-time discount of up to $30 to cover an installation fee or a cell phone. Considering how cheap some cell phones are nowadays, the money more than covers the costs of a basic phone. Then, the fund covers phone bills to the tune of $10 a month, which typically translates as 250 minutes for wireless plans of the types of phones we’re talking about. Americans who receive food stamps, Medicaid, or other federal aid, or who earn up to 135% of the federal poverty guidelines, qualify for the program.

Now, Bloomberg Businessweek reports, we have a pretty good idea of how much the program pays out—and how quickly it’s growing as more and more people find out about it. In 2011, Lifeline paid out $1.6 billion, more than double the amount paid in 2008 ($772 million).

(MORE: Is Cell Phone ‘Bill Shock’ Going Away?)

What’s more, an FCC audit of the program last year showed that many participants in the program were taking more than their fair share. According to Businessweek:

269,000 wireless Lifeline subscribers were receiving free phones and monthly service from two or more carriers.

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has been taking a closer look at the program since she personally received an invitation to apply for a free, government-subsidized cell phone in the mail. McCaskill has asked the FCC to investigate Lifeline. As a result, the FCC is building a database to see if a subscriber has more than one subsidized phone. In other words, until recently, such a database didn’t exist.

(MORE: How Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android Left Blackberry in the Dust)

The FCC, which announced the changes by using the euphemism that it is “modernizing” Lifeline, has set a goal of saving $200 million on the program in 2012. After eliminating nearly 270,000 of the duplicate subscriptions discovered in the audit last year, the FCC said it has already “saved” $33 million.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

5 comments
traymond81
traymond81

I am desperate need of help with my phone bills monthly with Metro PCS. I am completely out  of work and I have none assistance like that among people that are close to me. My phone bills with Metro PCS is $59/month every 8th of each month. I am desperate for help with my phone bills to keep my phone going and everything. Please help me out. I have a Samsung ZTE Avid and my bills are to be paid by every 9th of the month or I get cut off. Please help me out. My number is 313-482-1105. Email me at traymond81@gmail.com. Thank you so much!

MichelleZanoni
MichelleZanoni

I am in desperate need of help I work but its only one day a week and it don't even help cover anything. I rely on my cell phones for any jobs that come in. Doctors to call with results and I really don't have the extra cash to pay them If I don't get help with this bill I will be out of any work that might come in and drs info on my diabetic daughter for up coming appointment  or anything that she might need. I need my cell phones to make appointment, school, emergencies or to call in prescriptions into the pharmacy..

Thank you so much Michelle Zanoni

248-935-7383. I could also use help with anything else I could get help with

MarkALujan
MarkALujan

I'm in desperate need of help I'm an out of work carpenter I do electrical plumbing painting framing drywall stucco roofing etc i love to work but there's no work I couldn't pay my daughters child support as a result the state took my license to drive so I got tickets for driving on a suspended license which turned into warrants so I got pulled over and went to jail and got my car impounded I got my car out but I had to make a decesion between my phone or my car and had to borrow $300 more to cover the impound fee I rely on my phone for work and my car also and now my bills keep piling up and as a man I feel defeated but I know I need help if anyone out there could help me or needs their home remodeled I would be more than happy to work it off I also do minor car maintaiance I can also do body massages

Ill do whatever I need to do for help please

My name is mark 562)332-3797 or text

17145845736 or email me casadecowboys@yahoo.com

chipmonk89
chipmonk89

I am a mother of 3 and it's hard out here struggling every month trying to make ends meet, and this month was not cutting it. I have tried over and over again to ask people for help, and no one cares to help. Which is okay but i know that i will find someone who has a generous heart, and is willing to help someone like me, while everyone else sticks up their nose's at me.. I really would like the help, every place that i have called, can not help me unless its PG&E, or an actual utility bill. So while the entire government is taking a break and not helping those in need, the rest of us have to suffer and that's not how it should be. So if any of you on here are looking at my post and are wondering how i can contact this lady to help her here is my email address kimberlycharris89@gmail.com , please find it some where in your heart to help someone like me out. 


KellyPorter
KellyPorter

@chipmonk89 Hello, Did anyone ever assist you with the the cell phone bill payments?  I am in the same thing, plus unemployed trying to scratch up even rent money with the few temp jobs I am given,  any answers for me?