Efforts to provide Tennessee's low-income residents with free wireless phone service could help save lives in Chattanooga, one community activist said.
James Moreland, chairman of the East Chattanooga Weed and Seed initiative, said several area residents are elderly and have incomes so low they must choose whether to buy food or medicine. A free phone could help them, he said.
"I know several seniors who can't afford to pay for a phone, and if they get sick, they could perish right there in their house," Mr. Moreland said.
Sprint wants to partner with local nonprofit organizations to distribute cell phones and 200 minutes a month of phone service free, company officials say.
Community organizations interested in partnering with Assurance Wireless or that want more information may visit www.assurancewireless.com.
"It's a part of the (1996) Telecommunications Act that says no one will be denied telecommunication services," said Gary Carter, Atlanta-based manager of national partnerships for Assurance Wireless, the prepaid phone division of Sprint.
About 1.4 million people in Tennessee are poor enough to qualify for free phones, he said.
Single people qualify for the Sprint phone if they make less than $14,621 a year, Mr. Carter said, while a family of four qualifies if the annual household income is less than $28,768.
He said the phone comes with 200 minutes free each month. If clients want more minutes, they can buy more from Sprint at 10 cents a minute, Mr. Carter said.
The free service includes voice mail, call waiting, caller ID and free 911 access, he said.
"There're no contracts, no bills, no activation fees," he said.
Prepaid cell phone provider TracFone Wireless Inc. has announced it is launching its SafeLink Wireless program in Tennessee. That program would provide free phones and 68 minutes of free air time for up to a year for eligible households.
If customers run through their 68 minutes, they still can call 911 -- a free call -- and they can buy more minutes for other calls at a discounted rate, said Jose Fuentes, director of government relations for Tracfone Wireless.
The programs are a result of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which required the Federal Communications Commission to create a fund subsidized by phone users that provides the service for low-income people, according to news reports.
Urban League President and CEO Warren Logan said he is interested in learning more about the free phones. Some people come to the Urban League for job training but are hindered from getting a job because they don't have a telephone, he said.
"When you're looking for a job and you don't have access to telephone service, it's going to be difficult," he said. "You may apply for a job online, but you are sometimes called on the phone to schedule an interview."
Residents who want a free phone may call 1-888-898-4888 to verify eligibility.