Thursday, December 17, 2009

Assurance Wireless: New Free LifeLine Mobile Phone

On December 9, Virgin Mobile launched Assurance Wireless, a free mobile phone program for low-income people who are eligible under the Federal LifeLine program. It's currently available in New York, N. Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, and likely coming to more states in the future. This service now competes with SafeLink Wireless, which has been offering a free prepaid mobile phone and monthly minutes through the federal LifeLine program for over a year. (Read our initial review of SafeLink here).

If you live in one of these states and are eligible for LifeLine (see below), you should definitely look into this. You get a free mobile phone, plus 200 free minutes each month for as long as you're eligible for the program. This is nearly three times the minutes offered by SafeLink in these states, and a bit closer to the number of minutes someone can rely upon for normal daily use. The service is very similar to SafeLink in that your free minutes are automatically added to your phone each month. Text messages consume $.15 per message (sent or received). You can also purchase additional Virgin Mobile service to give you access to email and the Internet (cost is dependent on how much you use).

If you are currently using SafeLink and want to switch, it appears this is possible. According to Assurance Wireless, you just need to cancel your service with SafeLink and then go through the application process with Assurance. I know that the FCC is very cautious about letting people receive more than one LifeLine benefit (in this case, more than one phone per household), so it may prove to be more complicated than this or there may be a time delay as your transfer service. If you call, make sure you get confirmation about the process to ensure that you aren't without phone service for any length of time.

A couple other things that appear better than SafeLink:
  • You get to talk to a human. To apply for Assurance Wireless, you need to call a toll-free number (1-888-898-4888) and talk with an operator who will answer your questions about the program and send you an application in the mail (unfortunately not by email or fax). It's nice to be able to get a human on the phone instead of just dealing with recorded messages. Oh, and I was told today by an Assurance operator that I do not consume my free minutes when I call their toll-free customer service line using my Assurance phone. SafeLink explicitly says that when you call customer service or tech support using your phone, you consume minutes. (I always found this pretty ridiculous).
  • If you already have a Virgin Mobile phone, you can use it as your Assurance Wireless phone. This is nice for people already using Virgin's prepaid service, and a smart move by Assurance Wireless as it will cut down on the number of free phones they need to send out to customers.
One thing I don't like as much:
  • The site says that if you run out of minutes, you can buy additional minutes at a rate of $.20/minute via the Virgin Mobile "Top Up" cards available at retail locations everywhere. Virgin Mobile minutes normally cost $.10/minute or less at the retail stores, however, so this didn't add up. During my talk with Assurance Wireless today, I was told that you have to buy Assurance Wireless minute cards, not Virgin Mobile minute cards. I can't believe that's true, and I'll post again if I get to the bottom of this.
To qualify for LifeLine and be eligible for Assurance Wireless (or SafeLink Wireless), you need to be receiving one of a number of federal assistance benefits (food stamps, public housing assistance, home energy assistance, school free lunch program, medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, as well as select state programs), or your total household income must be below 135% of the Federal poverty level. Each state has slightly different requirements, and you need to talk with Assurance about the specifics.

So, competition between carriers has generated a better offering for low-income people who want to get a mobile phone. More minutes would be even better, but for now, it's nice to know that the system sometimes works to the advantage of people living in poverty. Someday, a smart carrier will realize that there is a viable market at the "bottom of the (American) pyramid," and we'll see an even better option. And Smart Carrier, if you're reading this, contact us. We'd like to help...

(If you have any experience, good or bad, with Assurance Wireless, please considering posting in the comments!)