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SUNDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2006
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Thousands eligible for help with phone bills

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Just in time for the holidays, thousands of low-income Alabamians are now eligible to receive help paying their phone bills with the Public Service Commission’s approval of expanding two assistance programs in the state.

Previously, only those who met Medicaid requirements could participate in the Lifeline and Linkup programs statewide, but commissioners voted to allow those who qualify for other assistance, including Supplemental Security Income and federal public housing assistance, to receive help with telephone bills.

PSC spokesman Clark Bruner said some Alabama companies were already offering the program to those who qualified for more than Medicaid, but all are now mandated to do so.

Lifeline

The Lifeline program allows participants to receive $13.50 off their monthly phone bills.

Basic phone service in Alabama is $16.30, so some participants can pay as low as $2.80 a month.

Phone installation through the Linkup program costs a maximum of $30 or half of the regular fee, whichever is less.

BellSouth spokeswoman Terri Denard said the company had 17,167 Lifeline customers as of November and a big increase is expected for 2007.

The Atlanta, Ga.-based BellSouth and Monroe, La.-based CenturyTel are the two largest traditional phone companies in Alabama. CenturyTel spokeswoman Jennifer Doherty said more than 4,000 of the company’s customers participated in the program this year.

Bruner said the programs were expanded within the past month after commissioners determined that the state’s 32 phone companies had methods in place to inform customers about the change.

He said the programs began as a federal initiative to help low-income residents establish and maintain telephone service and officials are hoping to at least double the number of people in the program.

“It will be thousands more, that’s for sure,” he said. “Low-income people and people on assistance programs need all the help they can get and even though this might just be $30 for installation or $10 a month, that could be a real big help for somebody who’s got a really tight budget.

“We want everybody in Alabama who’s eligible to be able to get these supplements,” Bruner said.

Alabama’s state government pays $3.50 and the federal government pays the remaining
$10 for the $13.50 subsidy, he said.

Cell phones are not covered in the programs, and other services, like caller ID and long-distance calls, aren’t subsidized.

According to the Universal Service Administrative Co., BellSouth was reimbursed $2.1 million for the programs in 2005 and has received $2 million so far this year.

CenturyTel was reimbursed $422,391 in 2005 and has received $323,659 from January through September.

Doherty said that amount is expected to total more than $400,000 once fourth-quarter reporting is done.

BellSouth customers will be informed of the new requirements through bill inserts in January and February and service representatives will also relay the information to callers, Denard said.

Campaigns

Doherty said CenturyTel already has a relationship with the state’s 22 community action agencies, which help people apply for and receive assistance for various programs. She said the company will continue its poster campaigns to reach out to communities who could use the programs.

Lukata Mjumbe, executive director of the Community Action Association of Alabama, said the expansion was “good news,” but stressed the importance of making sure an expanded infrastructure was in place to handle an influx of new customers.

“It’s good to know that there are people who are listening and recognize that the traditional ways in which we measure poverty are inadequate ... but we need to make it all the way around the bases,” he said.

“A double and a triple is only valuable because it gets you that much closer to home,” Mjumbe said, “and if we don’t actually make it all the way around the bases and make sure these resources are actually available to people in need, then we’re not going to win.”

2 consumer subsidy programs

Two programs are available in Alabama to help low-income residents establish and maintain telephone service:

Lifeline: Lifeline pays $13.50 for each monthly telephone bill for basic service. Other features such as long-distance, call waiting or caller ID are not covered. The aid is available for landlines only.

Linkup: The Linkup program pays half the cost of telephone installation or up to $30, whatever is cheaper.

Requirements: Customers who qualify for welfare, food stamps, energy assistance, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, federal public housing assistance or Supplemental Security Income are eligible for phone subsidies.

The Associated Press

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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