TracPhone looks to lend our nation's impoverished a helping hand.

While cell phones can be viewed as a luxury item on a daily basis, they also provide a fast means of communicating and reaching help in case of an emergency.  In this respect, cell phones have likely saved countless lives, though no precise metrics are available.  For this reason, prepaid wireless provider TracPhone, based out of Miami, is looking to offer very low cost cell phones to impoverished residents of Tennessee to help them with emergencies.

TracPhone has built a subscriber base of 10 million customers since its inception in 1996.  Now, with the help of government subsidies, it will offer limited free service to 813,000 low-income households in Tennessee.  It will also offer them addition service discounts under the Federal Communication Commission's so-called Lifeline, which provides to the primary phone line of poor households -- be it cellular or a land line.

The new service will give customers 68 minutes of emergency phone time a month for free, plus access to 911 calls.  They will also receive a phone free of charge.  Low-income residents will have to apply for the phones under federal poverty guidelines, and will have to each year reapply for the program in order to prove they still meet the requirements.

The new services come under the TracPhone brand SafeLink Wireless.  After Tennessee, TracPhone hopes to bring the service to several other states.  Jose Fuentes, the company's director of government relations says Florida and Georgia are next up after Tennessee.

In order to be eligible for the program, residents must make 135 percent of the federal poverty level or less.  For a family of four, this amounts to $21,200.  In order to qualify, participants must provide three months' worth of pay stubs or their W-2 form from the previous year.  They could also apply through Medicaid or low-income housing or energy assistance offices.

Mr. Fuentes praises his company's beneficence, stating, "A lot of carriers don't take a lot of interest in it (the Lifeline services), but we advertise it, market it and inform the public that there is a choice out there."

For every phone given, TracPhone makes a small $10 government subsidy.  TracPhone will also provide its participants with airtime cards for a fee. For $3, $5 or $10, subscribers can get 15, 25, and 50 minutes respectively.  TracPhone hopes that some users will rise out of poverty over the course of the year, but that they'll remember TracPhone and become paying customers.  Mr. Fuentes states, "A lot of these individuals will have this free service at first, but usually sometime afterwards they no longer qualify (based on income) but remain TracFone users."

While America is a very connected nation, with over 80 percent of Americans regularly going online, and with cell phones rapidly replacing the land line, there are still many who remain unconnected.  According to the FCC, 7.1 million American households have no phone line, cellular or otherwise.  Among people with incomes of $10,000 or less a year, almost 13 percent don't have a cell phone.

"Mac OS X is like living in a farmhouse in the country with no locks, and Windows is living in a house with bars on the windows in the bad part of town." -- Charlie Miller
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