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Government cell phone project comes to Harrisburg, York - abc27 WHTM

Government cell phone project comes to Harrisburg, York

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) -

Hundreds are waiting in line in Harrisburg to receive a free phone with pre-loaded minutes. How does this happen? The answer may surprise you.

Nina Dennis spent about two hours waiting in long lines and the summer heat to get her free Motorola Z6TV cell phone.

"A lot of people can't afford a cell phone bill. And, it's needed," Dennis said. "Whether it's medical or a job search - whatever."

Because these phones are government funded, many have dubbed them "Obama Phones." However, the history of the program suggests otherwise.

In January 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Clinton revised that legislation for the first time since 1934. One of the mandates in the bill created the Universal Service Fund, or USF, which pays for basic phone service for those who can't afford it.

Instead of using federal income tax dollars to pay for the program, the law stipulates each communication provider must put a percentage of their revenue into the USF. The cost trickled down to consumers. The USF Fee on your monthly phone bill offsets the cost for communication providers.

In 2008, under President George W. Bush, the program expanded to include basic cell phone service.

Locations to hand out these cell phones have popped up across the nation. This week, they have come to central Pennsylvania.

Michael Manley organized the tent at 13th and Derry streets in Harrisburg. His company, Budget Mobile, is one of 21 cell phone providers that hand out the free phones.

"They just need to come down, fill out a form," Manley said. "We program the phone right here on the spot and they walk away with a free cell phone."

Lifeline requires people to prove they meet government poverty standards or receive one of 16 government assistance programs, such as food stamps, Medicaid, or LIHEAP. If they qualify, people will receive a free cell phone along with 250 minutes a month for one year.

Of course, there are mixed feelings about the program.

Donna Myers, who often works with low-income families, said it's an important initiative.

"I know that people are in need of phones. They have to communicate with a lot of people even if it's family members, friends," she said. "They need to be in contact with people."

One Harrisburg woman said she doesn't agree with the handout.

"They shouldn't get everything for free," she said. "Whether it's community service, they need to do something to pay it forward."

Last November, Congressman Tim Griffin (R-Arkansas) introduced a bill that would end the Lifeline program, which he calls "Uncle Sam's Unlimited Plan."

A YouTube video produced by Griffin's staff promoted his legislation, called the Stop Taxpayer Funded Cell Phones Act of 2011.

"Some folks are arguing this is not a tax," Griffin said. "Anyway you slice it it's a tax. Consumers are forced to pay it, and where I come from that's a tax."

Griffin's biggest gripe is the $1.2 billion a year cost and loose FCC regulations.

On January 31, 2012 under President Barrack Obama, the FCC adopted strict reforms on cost and distribution of free cell phones. This aims to help crack down on abuse.

Dennis agrees some people will always try to abuse a free program, but insists that in neighborhoods like Allison Hill, free basic cell phone service is needed.

"People out here are all colors and race - the need is here," she said.

The tent began handing out free cell phones on Monday. So far, Manley said more than 300 phones have been handed out.

Another location on S. Duke Street in York is also handing out free phones. Manley said last week his team of volunteers handed out more than 1,200 phones.

Manley said program volunteers plan to continue handing out phones for the next couple of weeks or until the "lines die down."

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