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There is a government program that offers free cell phone and mobile hotspot service. Qualifying is easier right now than ever. Here’s how it works and who can get it.

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“No one knows about this program,” stated Matthew Johnson, co-founder, and co-CEO of TruConnect, a wireless service company.

“Currently, there are roughly 30 to 40 million people who don’t have access to high-speed internet and that’s only increased recently with the issues due to COVID-19,” expained Johnson.

He’s on a mission to connect them through a program called Lifeline.

“The program is a terrific program, it’s been around since Ronald Reagan; he’s the one who started the program back in the 1980s and it’s been hugely successful, but the vast majority of United States does not know about it,” further explained Johnson.

Lifeline started out as a way to offer low-income Americans a wired phone line at a steep discount, but in recent years, the focus has shifted to wireless service with phones and monthly service free for the asking.

I visited with Johnson at his company’s headquarters in Downtown Los Angeles. TruConnect is the 4th largest Lifeline provider in the United States. They sign up customers and in exchange, the government pays them a stipend for managing the service.

Lifeline’s basic offering is an inexpensive Android phone along with talk and text minutes, plus 3 gigabytes of data each month. California is most generous with unlimited talk and text, while other states mostly give participants 1,000 talk and texts.

The one stipulation: you have to use the phone at least once a month to keep the service active.

There are other companies doing this, too. They go by names including Assurance Wireless, Q Link Wireless, and SafeLink Wireless. TruConnect prides itself on differentiation by including extras and even manufacturing its own smartphones so they can better control the quality, performance and minimize bloatware.

“All of our products, including the hotspot, are 4G LTE network-compatible,” said Johnson, who explained they run on T-Mobile’s network.

Calls to other countries are also included. “We, unlike other carriers, offer free unlimited to Mexico, Canada, China, Vietnam and Korea,” said Johnson.

The phones also include proprietary software that allows them to seamlessly log into free public WiFi hotspots nearby in an effort to save your mobile data allowance. Customers can also purchase extra minutes or gigabytes as necessary.

So, how do you qualify?

“Across the U.S., the two basic programs that automatically qualify you are Medicaid and Snap, so if you’re on one of those two programs you automatically qualify,” says Johnson. There are also income levels that qualify you. Additionally, emergency eligibility is being offered to many who are on unemployment due to the pandemic.

The free phones are basic, but they’ll do the job. There are even little touches like an SOS button on a senior-friendly flip phone and a headphone jack that lets you listen to over the air FM radio without using data.

“I think [we] would find it very hard to function without a smartphone today. Imagine you’re one of these underserved individuals who didn’t have the money, didn’t have the access and didn’t have the connectivity. You’re seriously put in danger because of that lack of connectivity,” concluded Johnson.

Applying for the free cell phone service is easy, it’s usually done online and approval is instantaneous in many cases.

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