As early as next year, 1.5 million Californians could be eligible for 250 free cell phone minutes and 250 free text messages a month.
Assurance Wireless — an arm of mobile giant Sprint — will provide the service through the federally-funded Lifeline program. That program is currently limited to land lines in California.
Assurance Wireless spokesman Jack Pflanz says the addition of cell phone service has made a huge difference to people in 36 other states where it’s been adopted.
"Unemployment is so very high in this country right now and jobs are far and few between," Pflanz said. "You’ve got to react really quickly to an offer for an interview or an offer for a job before they move on to the next person."
Pflanz says cell phones also make it easier for people to stay in touch with schools, doctors, and social service providers.
Yolanda Arias with Legal Aid Foundation Los Angeles says the free cellular service will be especially helpful for the homeless — an estimated 78,000 people in L.A. County.
"The cell phones will be so useful for homeless people who are waiting to hear about shelter spaces, people on aid who are homeless and don’t have access to mail," Arias said. "They can get their notices for appointments and notices of problems with their benefits."
People who qualify for the new Lifeline mobile service have to pay $20 for a cell phone. But Assurance Wireless then credits the money to the customer’s account to buy additional time or text messages. Once a customer uses up the free allotments, they must wait for the service to reset the next month — or pre-pay to add more minutes or more texts.
Pflanz says the program's main aim is to cut costs for users: "Having an Assurance wireless phone really provides an opportunity to save money on phone service, and that money that’s saved can now be used to pay for rent, or pay for heat, or medicine or medical services."
Assurance Wireless has a few more details to provide to California’s Public Utilities Commission before they can launch in the state. The company expects to do that within a couple of months.