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Homeless, poor can get free cellphones
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SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Impoverished Californians, including those who are homeless, soon will be able to get free cellphones and service thanks to the recent expansion of a statewide program.

Two wireless carriers are now offering free phones and monthly plans for 250 minutes and 250 text messages to all those who can prove that they make less than $14,702 a year, or are income eligible.

Before last week, the program only provided free landlines to the needy. But on Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission approved two companies' proposals to offer free mobile service funded in part through the Federal Communications Commission's Lifeline program, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Bevan Dufty, San Francisco's head of homeless initiatives, plans to send staff to low-income housing complexes and shelters in the coming weeks to make sure the city's least fortunate know how to apply. Dufty and advocates for people experiencing homelessness have been pressing the commission to approve the program for three years, saying that cell-phone Lifeline plans have been approved in most other states.

"We are very excited by this," Dufty said. "It will help people move forward. It will empower them, and we in San Francisco are going to be a model city for this program."

Romonica Grayson, who lives in the city's Sunnydale public housing project, said having a mobile phone will mean being able to communicate easily with loved ones, and coordinate social events, parent services and other activities at Sunnydale.

"Everything will be different now," Grayson said as she picked up application information earlier this week. "I can finally be sure I will be able to get ahold of people to do what I need to do in a timely fashion."

Reach Out Wireless and Assurance Wireless, an arm of Sprint, will provide the phones free of charge, and will be reimbursed $9.25 by the FCC's federal Lifeline program to cover the cost of services, FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said.

The two free plans to be offered in California have limits on service, and policies surrounding the replacement or repair of phones are different for each carrier, according to the CPUC's spokesman Andrew Kotch.

Most wireless carriers include long distance service in their plans, he said.

The FCC has been overseeing the wireless program since 2005, and has made rules changes to alleviate fraud and abuse, Wigfield said. The program does not do a background check on applicants' criminal or health histories, nor does it set guidelines restricting the type of calls that can be made, he added.

"The rules for the Lifeline program are meant to make sure that the program is protected against waste, fraud or abuse but a rich kid could call 911 unnecessarily just as easily as someone who is poor," Wigfield said. "It's just is not in FCC's jurisdiction to deal with that."