Monday, August 09, 2010

Poverty law group question TracFone rates

A program in Ohio that gives free cell phone minutes to low income people is drawing the attention of the Ohio Poverty Law Center. The center says that people who use the program get gouged by the service provider TracFone.

From the Columbus Dispatch writer Tim Feran gives us more details about the public records request.

Under the program in question, TracFone Wireless Inc.'s SafeLink service, qualifying Ohioans can get a free cell phone with 68 free minutes to use each month. Once the free time is used, customers are charged 20 cents a minute.

Although that price is roughly the same as what TracFone charges the public under at least one service plan, two groups consider the additional cost excessive.

Lawyers for Ohio Poverty Law Center and Advocates for Basic Legal Equality Inc./Western Ohio filed a public-records request with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio last week to find out how many people exceed the 68 minutes and by how much.

The PUCO estimates that about 555,000 customers are using the Lifeline Assistance Program designed for low-income residents in Ohio. Slightly more than half use the wireless service option, with the rest using a landline-based service.

State consumer advocates have worried from the beginning of the Lifeline cell-phone program that customers almost inevitably would need time beyond the 68 free minutes, especially because the cell phone would be used as the primary phone line.

"In one or two other states, they're offering 200 minutes," said Michael Smalz, staff attorney for the poverty law center. "There's no explanation why they're offering such a terrible deal in Ohio."

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