MPUC to make sure low-income customers get free cell phones

By Ramona du Houx - February 8th, 2010 · 

The Maine Public Utilities Commission voted unanimously, on February 8, 2010, to designate TracFone Wireless, Inc., as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC). As a result, TracFone qualifies for significant federal funds so that the company can provide Lifeline service in Maine. TracFone’s Lifeline service will mean the company provides free cell phones to low-income customers with 68 free minutes a month available to those who qualify.

“This is a creative and useful way to extend phone service to low-income Mainers,” noted Commission Chair Sharon Reishus. “We agree that the service TracFone will provide is in the public interest and deserves to be approved promptly.”

In its deliberations today, the Commission also considered the fact that usually a carrier is required to pay into the Maine universal service fund which is intended to encourage the expansion of “universal” phone service to all regions and populations of the state. Currently, TracFone contends that it is not required to pay into this fund. The Commission opened an investigation into whether TracFone is required to pay into Maine’s universal service fund, and other applicable regulatory fees.

Background: TracFone is a re-seller of pre-paid cellular phone service provider; the company has been operating in Maine for over ten years. TracFone provides phone service throughout the state wherever wireless service is available through its arrangements with various service providers; it does not own or operate any facilities in Maine or elsewhere. To be designated as an ETC, a carrier must offer a variety of services (for example, local usage, access to emergency services, toll limitations for qualifying low-income customers, and more) which are supported by the federal universal service fund to all customers within the ETC’s service area.