Good news for low-income people in Michigan who don’t have access to a phone or are currently using a Safelink Wireless phone; Assurance Wireless is now available in your state.
As we’ve written before, Assurance Wireless is a prepaid mobile offering through the Federal Lifeline program. Assurance offers a free phone and 200 free minutes per month if you qualify for the program. The other Lifeline prepaid mobile offering (Safelink) only offers 68 free minutes per month, so Assurance is a much better deal. If you’re using Safelink, you might want to consider switching to Assurance (see below for more on this).
You may be qualified to receive this benefit if you receive any of a number of federal or state public assistance benefits. Here’s the list of benefits that qualify residents of Michigan for the Lifeline program:
Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA) or Section 8
Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
National School Lunch Program’s Free Lunch Program, OR
Your household income is at or below 150% of the federal poverty guidelines
(See this for more information about eligibility in Michigan or the other four states in which Assurance is offered – New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee).
If you’re currently using Safelink Wireless or another Lifeline-provided phone, and you want to switch to Assurance Wireless to get more free monthly minutes, we suggest you:
1. Call Assurance Wireless to start the application process and specifically ask them what you need to do to switch from another provider. Write it down! 2. Call Safelink or your current Lifeline provider, and ask them what you need to do to switch to another provider. Write it down!
We’ve called several times to try to get specific information about switching from both carriers, and we’ve received different information each time. It may be that they’ve worked this out when you call, but it’s also possible that you may not be able to keep your existing phone number and/or you may be without your phone service for a period of time while one provider cancels and the other starts up. If anyone reading this blog does the switch, please post and let us know what your experience has been. In the meantime, we’ll keep trying to get accurate information.
As we’ve written before, Safelink Wireless is providing free cell phones and free minutes to lower-income people who qualify for the federal Lifeline program. How many phones? According to data from the nonprofit that distributes federal funds to participating carriers, in September 2009, they received $23,285,172 in reimbursements for phones they’ve distributed. Assuming the maximum per-customer contribution is $10/customer, that means there are about 2.3 million people in the U.S. who are taking advantage of this option. This is a huge number, about 27% of the $87 million distributed via the Lifeline program in that month. (See the table below for state-by-state data).
A lot of people have posted about their experiences with Safelink, but here’s a formal, open question for everyone who has a Safelink phone or has tried to get a phone from them: how do you like Safelink? Is it working for you? Was it easy to get? Have you had any problems with the phone or service? Do you find that you’re routinely buying more minutes from Tracfone (Safelink’s parent) when you run out of the free minutes?
Not a scientific sampling, but it would help to know what your experiences are as we think about recommendations to Community Voice Mail clients about these services. Please post your thoughts in the comments. Thanks!
Assurance Wireless: New Free LifeLine Mobile Phone
Posted December 17, 2009 by stokeadmin
On December 9, Virgin Mobile launched Assurance Wireless, a free mobile phone program for low-income people who are eligible under the Federal LifeLine program. It’s currently available in New York, N. Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, and likely coming to more states in the future. This service now competes with SafeLink Wireless, which has been offering a free prepaid mobile phone and monthly minutes through the federal LifeLine program for over a year. (Read our initial review of SafeLink here).
If you live in one of these states and are eligible for LifeLine (see below), you should definitely look into this. You get a free mobile phone, plus 200 free minutes each month for as long as you’re eligible for the program. This is nearly three times the minutes offered by SafeLink in these states, and a bit closer to the number of minutes someone can rely upon for normal daily use. The service is very similar to SafeLink in that your free minutes are automatically added to your phone each month. Text messages consume $.15 per message (sent or received). You can also purchase additional Virgin Mobile service to give you access to email and the Internet (cost is dependent on how much you use).
If you are currently using SafeLink and want to switch, it appears this is possible. According to Assurance Wireless, you just need to cancel your service with SafeLink and then go through the application process with Assurance. I know that the FCC is very cautious about letting people receive more than one LifeLine benefit (in this case, more than one phone per household), so it may prove to be more complicated than this or there may be a time delay as your transfer service. If you call, make sure you get confirmation about the process to ensure that you aren’t without phone service for any length of time.
A couple other things that appear better than SafeLink:
You get to talk to a human. To apply for Assurance Wireless, you need to call a toll-free number (1-888-898-4888) and talk with an operator who will answer your questions about the program and send you an application in the mail (unfortunately not by email or fax). It’s nice to be able to get a human on the phone instead of just dealing with recorded messages. Oh, and I was told today by an Assurance operator that I do not consume my free minutes when I call their toll-free customer service line using my Assurance phone. SafeLink explicitly says that when you call customer service or tech support using your phone, you consume minutes. (I always found this pretty ridiculous).
If you already have a Virgin Mobile phone, you can use it as your Assurance Wireless phone. This is nice for people already using Virgin’s prepaid service, and a smart move by Assurance Wireless as it will cut down on the number of free phones they need to send out to customers.
One thing I don’t like as much:
The site says that if you run out of minutes, you can buy additional minutes at a rate of $.20/minute via the Virgin Mobile “Top Up” cards available at retail locations everywhere. Virgin Mobile minutes normally cost $.10/minute or less at the retail stores, however, so this didn’t add up. During my talk with Assurance Wireless today, I was told that you have to buy Assurance Wireless minute cards, not Virgin Mobile minute cards. I can’t believe that’s true, and I’ll post again if I get to the bottom of this.
To qualify for LifeLine and be eligible for Assurance Wireless (or SafeLink Wireless), you need to be receiving one of a number of federal assistance benefits (food stamps, public housing assistance, home energy assistance, school free lunch program, medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, as well as select state programs), or your total household income must be below 135% of the Federal poverty level. Each state has slightly different requirements, and you need to talk with Assurance about the specifics.
So, competition between carriers has generated a better offering for low-income people who want to get a mobile phone. More minutes would be even better, but for now, it’s nice to know that the system sometimes works to the advantage of people living in poverty. Someday, a smart carrier will realize that there is a viable market at the “bottom of the (American) pyramid,” and we’ll see an even better option. And Smart Carrier, if you’re reading this, contact us. We’d like to help…
(If you have any experience, good or bad, with Assurance Wireless, please considering posting in the comments!)
The current Star Trek film (which I want to see) reportedly cost $150 million to make. But what can you do with a mobile phone camera and $57 dollars? Make a beautiful 3.5 minute film about homelessness. “Mankind Is No Island” is a short film by Jason van Genderen that uses street signs and images of homeless people in Sydney and New York City to tell the story. In 2008, the film won two awards at Tropfest New York, the USA version of the world’s largest short film festival. Definitely worth watching. And another way mobile phones can be powerful tools to combat homelessness.
Update: A reader let me know that the two USAC links below had changed. I’ve updated the links below.
A few people have posted comments complaining about the service they’re getting from SafeLink Wireless, the first mobile phone carrier to offer a free phone and monthly minutes to low-income people who qualify for the Federal LifeLine program. Community Voice Mail is in no way connected to SafeLink Wireless or TracFone (its parent company), but we did find out how you can submit complaints about SafeLink or any other telecommunications company if you’re not happy with their service.
I sent an email to the nonprofit that administers the various telecommunications programs that receive Universal Service Funds (LifeLine is one of these programs). The nonprofit is called the Universal Service Administrative Company, or USAC (see www.usac.org). I emailed USAC to find out where consumers could submit complaints about SafeLink or any other phone company, and on May 6, 2009, I received an email from the director of the Low-Income program at USAC, which said:
If you’re having a problem that a phone company is not resolving to your satisfaction, these look like two good avenues to try to get help. And it does matter if you call; the more complaints they get, the greater the likelihood that the company will address these concerns. And, if you’re having problems, it’s possible that other people are as well.
I’m interested to learn what your experiences are if you decide to contact your state public utilities commission or the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). If you call or submit a complaint online, please consider posting a comment about your experience. Good luck!