Lifeline Program - Overview
To understand why there are free government phones, you need to first understand a little about the Lifeline program. Previously called Lifeline/Link-Up program, its now only referred to as the Lifeline program (you may see old references to Link-Up not only on this site, but other sites, but it’s really now just Lifeline).
The Lifeline program set the groundwork for all of the existing free and government assisted phone programs.
Telephone Assistance (Pre Cell Phone Age)
When these programs were first instituted, the Lifeline Assistance program and Link-Up America which are supported by the federal Universal Service Fund (USF), the intent was to help low-income individuals by providing discounted home phone service. The program helped to offset the activation, installation and monthly service fees that can put a strain on families of low income.
Initially, this program applied to in-home landlines. As technology advanced, the Lifeline program was broadened to include wireless phones. With further advancement in technology, the Lifeline program now includes broadband connection, i.e., data plans (see the March 2016 Order to Modernize the FCC’s Lifeline Program). While the discounted programs still exist, the wireless and free government phone aspect of the program has become much more popular.
The focus of this site is on the free phone and service providers. There may be an occasional reference to discounted phone service or discounted broadband service, but it is not the main focus of this site.
Federal vs. State Eligibility
You should know that there are Federal eligibility and state eligibility guidelines for qualifying for the Lifeline program. Each state has the option of relying solely on the federal program or instituting its eligibility requirements. For those states that rely solely on the government program, the eligibility is based on Federal guidelines. However, for those states with their own eligibility requirements, you’ll note they differ from state to state.
To unify the federal and state guidelines, the USAC is working to bring all states under the National Verification process. By doing so, the eligibility requirements become centrally managed. As such, consumers will have the ability to apply for Lifeline on their own directly through the National Verifier consumer portal CheckLifeline.org. Consumers can also send in applications by mail.
Residents living in states subject to National Verification should apply for benefits using the portal.
Who Foots the Bill for These Free/Discounted Phones?
Each phone provider is required to contribute to the Universal Service Fund. Their contribution amount is based on a percentage of their revenues. The phone provider companies are not limited to the big name providers such as AT&T, Verizon and the like. Phone providers also include paging service companies, wireless companies and even VOIP companies such as Vonage (VoIP stands for voice over Internet protocol: You know those phone companies that use the internet for making calls).
Who Really Pays for the Free Government Phones?
Well, here’s where it gets a bit tricky. Some phone providers will tack on a “Universal Service” item on your phone bill. If you see an item and a charge for Universal Service, that means your phone provider is passing some of the cost of the program on to you.
The Universal Service charge is not required by the Federal Communications Commission. The decision to pass the cost onto you is a business decision made by your phone carrier. Your phone provider cannot collect more in universal service charges than they actually paid, nor can they charge universal service fees to Lifeline customers.
For more information visit the Universal Service Administration Company’s website.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: This site was created to help people find information about free government phones. We do not mail, activate or repair free government phones nor do we provide service. If you have questions about phone service we suggest you contact the phone service provider directly.
Last Modified: 7 June 2021
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