TracFone giving free cell phones to low-income Mainers

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The way TracFone Wireless officials figure, they have 12,290 free cell phones to hand out in Androscoggin County, 7,236 in Oxford County and another 4,234 in Franklin.

Two months after getting state approval to offer government-subsidized free cell service to low-income residents in Maine, the company says it’s now taking applications.

To qualify for the free phone and 68 minutes every month for a year, residents have to take part in state aid programs such as food stamps, MaineCare or emergency heating assistance.

Jose Fuentes, director of government relations and spokesman for TracFone, said the company started offering its SafeLink Wireless free phone program in 2008 when the Federal Communications Commission approved it for 10 states and Washington, D.C. The company applied to the Maine Public Utilities Commission to offer it here last fall. Approval came down in February. It officially launched one month ago.

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“It took a little bit of time for this to get under way,” Fuentes said Tuesday.

In exchange for offering the phone and airtime, TracFone receives a $10 monthly subsidy for every line from the FCC’s Universal Service Fund, originally intended to discount landline charges for low-income customers.

Maine is TracFone’s 25th state with SafeLink.

Matthew Smith, executive director of the Maine Community Action Association, said his group got involved as an interested party last fall in front of the PUC.

“Some of our early questions were, ‘Is this really a free service?’ ‘Are there hidden charges of any kind?’ In fact, no,” Smith said. “It provides someone with phone access with no cost that can be used for emergencies, short conversations.”

Residents who believe they qualify can fill out a form online, call a 1-800 number to get an application sent or, starting May 1, enroll at MCAA members like Community Concepts in South Paris or Auburn.

To apply, people have to attest to receiving help from either Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, Supplemental Security Income, food stamps, MaineCare, Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program or the Emergency Assistance Program. If aid stops, the service is supposed to stop. Fuentes said customers can be subject to a random audit to prove their eligibility.

At the end of one year, they have to reapply.

Only one SafeLink phone is allowed per house, only to the head of household, he said. It can be used like any other TracFone to make and receive calls. Unused minutes rollover to the next month. Additional airtime can be bought and added at retailers such as Walmart, but a majority of customers don’t go over their 68 minutes, he said.

He said the SafeLink program is designed to keep people accessible to their children and to work. He estimated, based on Census data and other factors, 145,246 Maine residents should be eligible for the phones.

Across the country, TracFone’s SafeLink has more than 2 million customers, according to its Web site.

kskelton@sunjournal.com

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