In Today’s time, a telephone has become a well-accepted household device. Its absence is simply not acceptable. Agreeing to the fact that the with the advent of cell phone the importance of the generic telephone has considerably reduced, but it should also be noted that being an alternate source of communication it’s still a very important gadget to have in your home.
Having said that, when it comes to serving the usage bill at the end of the month, a considerable majority of the general population is unable to pay the dues. The reasons are varying ranging from unavailability of funds to a general unawareness regarding the payment means available.
In order to cater to this particular group of people, the government has set forth certain norms and guidelines along with help programs, which would assist them in meeting their dues.
Some of them have been mentioned below;
- The Lifeline Program:
This program is part of the Universal Service Fund and has been designed by the government to help the low income individuals of the society who have to struggle to pay their monthly bills. In order to qualify or be applicable for this program, the applicant’s household income should be at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. If that is not the case, one can still qualify if they are receiving benefits under other programs like SNAP, Federal Public Housing Assistance, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program support, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, National School Lunch Program, Health Benefit Coverage under Child Health Plan, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families etc.
This program started three decades ago has stood the test of time, providing Americans with basic phone services and an opportunity for them to connect with their loved ones at their own free will. In 2005 the program started offering discounts for pre-paid wireless service plans as well. In fact the program has been proven successful by recent statistics, it shows that Lifeline reduces the basic monthly phone rate up to 13$ for the qualified applicants. That in itself is a huge achievement, considering that the government is able to reach that number per person. In order to sustain such heavy investment programs, the government has set aside a fraction of finances in their budget, even then it would be right to assume that such programs put a large monetary burden on the financial structure of the administration.
There are various other services which are offered under this program, a reduction in the cost of installation of local telephone services may also be provided to the families. But other functions like caller ID or voice messaging are not included in the costs.It should be noted that this is a federal program which does not provide direct assistance to the general public, it provides support to the various telecommunication companies functioning across the nation which in-turn offer discounts to their consumers.
A discount is provided per telephone line per household. If order to ensure that you continue receiving benefits of this scheme, one needs to reapply every year, else the account gets deactivated. If one if found in violation of the criteria of acceptance, his account would be removed from the list of benefactors.
One can check his applicability online using the Lifeline Pre-Screening Tool. USAC or the Universal Service Administration Company provides the necessary know-how regarding the program. The entire process takes less than 15mins. Your particular scenario much fall under the purview of the legal framework set forth by the program administration, for example they define a household as “Everyone who lives together at your address as one economic unit which includes children and other people who are otherwise not related to you”.
The tool is only a means by which one can get a rough idea of his standing, in order to assure yourself of your applicability, you should apply at the state agency or your local telephone company.
An eligible customer can receive discount for either wireline or wireless service, but not both at the same time. If for any reason a household is availing the benefits of more than one Lifeline service, than he must immediately inform the nearest state agency and de-enroll from the program. It must be noted that violation of this rules can lead to criminal and/or civil penalties.
USAC is a organisation which is responsible for the smooth functioning of this program, they also cater to services like data collection, maintenance, support calculation and disbursement for the low income program.
Over time certain reforms were introduced in the scheme, so that it could cope with the ever changing socio-economic dynamics, some of them are mentioned below;
1) Setting a savings target of $200 million for 2012.
2) Creation of eligibility databases.
3) Creation of a National Lifeline Accountability Database.
4) Establishing a one-per-household rule applicable to all providers in the program.
5) Reducing burden on carriers.
6) Phasing out support for services.
7) Establishing clear goals and metrics.
In order to modernise the scheme, the government introduced certain changes:
1) Establishing a Broadband Adoption Pilot Program- To test the response of broadband adoption amongst existing Lifeline users, the program has used up to $25 million, gathered from other reform programs. In the beginning of the year, it would solicit applications from the broadband providers and accordingly choose a variety of projects to fund. The intention is to reduce the overall cost of the broadband adoption, but apart from that certain other challenges are also emerging. It would be expected from the applicants to address the issues of cost of devices and digital literacy, i.e. the general know-how with regards to the working of the devices.
2) Adopting an express goal for the program- The main focus would be to ensure the wide spread availability of broadband services across the low income strata of the society.
3) Proposed increasing digital literacy training at libraries and schools- Aim is to increase digital literacy at libraries and school using funds from other Universal Service Fund Reforms. This would ensure an easy and smooth transition to broadband adoption.
4) Build on FCC efforts to close the broadband adoption gap and address digital literacy- A new initiative by the name of Connect-to-Compete has been introduced which aims at enlisting government, private sector service providers, non-profit organisations to address the immediate barriers with regards to broadband adoption. This can only be achieved by low cost broadband availability across the segment and increased digital training.
5) Allow Lifeline support for bundled service plans- It would combine broadband and voice or packages which would include optional calling features.
- Link-up Program:
This initiative also caters to the same problem, but it differs to the Lifeline program on a few parameters. It will pay for half of the telephone installation costs if the enlisted consumer is buying a new telephone. However, there is a ceiling limit of 50$, that is, it is the maximum up to which the program would provide funding. The amount varies greatly from state to state. In a few cases, it would also pay for cell phone services. Even the telecommunication service providers have started providing an option, under which the consumer can opt for a payment plan under which the balance of the installation charge is divided into equal segments and spread over a long tenure comprising of several months. This way, the consumer won’t be burdened by the immediate payment of a lump-sum amount.
Certain states have gone a step further and have said that the consumer doesn’t need to pay any deposit if he requests “local phone service only” and also request “long distance block” when connecting the services under this program. A zero percent interest loan can be provided to consumers who need it for paying their phone installation bills, in the sense that the consumer can borrow up to $300 of set-up fee, and that amount would be totally interest free for up to 12 months from the date of disbursement.
Companies are also providing low income families with free cell phones, both SafeLink as well as Assurance are providing this service to millions of customers. Even though the cell phone models are of a previous series, they provide working functionality to the consumer at absolutely no cost.
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