12/10/2012 03:57 pm ET Updated May 01, 2013

Government Subsidized Cell Phones To Be Offered To California's Poor And Homeless

A controversial program offering low cost cell phone service for homeless people may be headed to the Golden State.

The LifeLine cell phone program, already being provided by mobile carrier Assurance Wireless in 36 other states, is part of a national effort to expand expand telecommunications access to all Americans--even those living on the street.

"This is great--it is transformative for homeless and low-income people," San Francisco's "homeless czar" Bevan Dufty told the San Francisco Chronicle, noting that the phones could help the city's homeless call into the 311 information line that provides information about available shelter beds. "Fundamentally, to be in the mainstream of our society you have to have a phone...We really need this plan."

Participants in the program will only have to shell out $20 for a cell phone and pay ten cents a minute after 250 monthly minutes of free talk time. That initial payment will be refunded as a credit to pay for any overages. All Californians earning under $14,000 per year are eligible to participate.

California has long offered a similar discounted phone service program to its lowest-income residents; however, until now, it's been exclusively confined to landlines. Participation in the landline-only program has dropped in recent years, losing over half a million subscribers since 2009.

If the CPUC approves the cellular plan, California would become the 37th state to begin participating in Assurance's discounted cell phone program.

According to a 2011 study published by the New Millennium Research Council, "if all 28.5 million adults eligible for Lifeline Assistance [in the United States] were to take advantage of the program and earn at the same rate and level as [the study] sample, it would result in $3.7 billion in fresh income for the poor and near poor."

Nationally, the Lifeline program has come under fire from some Republicans, who cite it as an example of government largesse. Opponents have labeled the devices "Obama phones," even though the initial program was created under President Ronald Reagan and expanded to include cell phones during the George W. Bush administration.

Congressman Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) recently introduced a bill gutting the program following reports that some individuals were taking advantage to get multiple phones.

PolitiFact noted that the Obama administration has enacted a number of reforms to the LifeLine program in an effort to eliminate waste and fraud.

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