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Lifeline program makes cell phone service free for needy

An obscure federal program that helps poor people pay for phone service is entering the wireless era. Cell phone companies are offering the needy a bargain that the rest of us can only dream about: free service.

TracFone, a national wireless phone service company, this month began offering its no-cost service to the nearly half a million low-income families in the state that are estimated to qualify. Its competitor in the prepaid market, Virgin Mobile, plans to offer a similar service this summer.

Both services are subsidized by the federal government's Lifeline program, created 25 years ago to ensure that poor people had phone service. People who qualify usually pay about half of the monthly cost for phone service. Despite the discount, only a third of households eligible for the program use it. In this state, fewer than 126,000 customers are signed up.

Details of Virgin's plan aren't yet available, but TracFone's program, called SafeLink, provides unlimited free 911 emergency calls, as well as 68 minutes of free calling time every month, with a free Motorola cell phone that normally costs $9.99. SafeLink also comes with voice mail, caller ID, call waiting, voice mail, long distance and text messaging.

"If they can offer a phone service for free and make a profit doing it, I'm all for it," said John Garrison, director of the communications division of the Public Staff, the state agency that represents consumers in utility matters. "Any way we can get more people onto Lifeline service, who qualify for it, I think it's good."

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