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Regulators Approve Free Cellphones For The Poor

Impoverished Californians will soon get free cellphones.

The state Public Utilities Commission has approved a federal cellphone giveaway program designed to help the homeless and other impoverished people connect with family, friends and potential employers.

Assurance Wireless, an arm of Sprint, will organize cellphone distribution. The program should be in place next year.

The Sacramento Bee reported that nearly 5 million California residents with annual incomes below $15,000 and those who receive Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, food stamps and other aid will be eligible for the federal "Lifeline" program.

Access to cellphones will help people look for housing, jobs and stay in touch with families, said Joan Burke of Loaves & Fishes, a Sacramento-area homeless services group. "We often have families coming to Loaves & Fishes or calling us, because they know their relative is out here but they don't have a way to contact them," she told the Bee. "So this is about the best Christmas news we could ever have."

Qualified recipients can expect the program to be worked out and in place early next year, and logistics are still being worked out.

The state has helped poor people with their telephone bills for decades, but the program has only covered landline phones until now. The new program is funded by telephone companies that can recoup part of the money through charges to customers.

California is joining 36 other states with the Lifeline program, which at the end of June had 17.6 million people as clients.

The Federal Communications Commission has been overseeing the program since 2005, and has made rules changes to alleviate fraud and abuse, agency spokesman Mark Wigfield said.

The FCC said efforts to prevent households from getting duplicate benefits saved $33 million last year.

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