A Knoxville street corner is drawing a number of people looking for free cellphones through the federal Lifeline benefit program


Just a block away from KARM, a tent has drawn plenty of attention in recent weeks.

The banner sign is hard to miss with its bright neon yellow and big lettering: Cell phone service FREE.

Its part of a federal program called Lifeline, which provides discounted or free monthly telephone service for low-income customers. A variety of service carriers offer a Lifeline option. The one on Broadway in Knoxville is called Access Wireless.

"I heard they [were] passing them out and they were trying to help people," said Thomas Irick, who is homeless. "And they helped me. I got a phone today."

Not everybody can get a free phone. Lifeline applications require proof a person is already enrolled in a benefit program, like housing assistance, food stamps, or Medicaid.

Irick said he showed his ID and his food stamp card to get his phone. The device gives him 250 free minutes each month. He plans to use it to find work and to contact family members.

"Your phone is your hand these days, you've got to have a phone," he said. "You've got to be connected to the world, right?"

Lolita Polk also got a phone from Access Wireless.

"This is my lifeline," she said. "Contact my kids, my fiance when he's at work, my family -- everything."

The phones are simple, with only the basic calling and texting functions. Polk says that's all she needs.

"It's enough for me. It gets me by."

Since the phones are free or discounted for low income customers, the financial responsibility sits with the telecommunications service providers. FCC rules say every telecommunications service provider must contribute, and that amount is based on a percentage of their revenues.

Some companies pass that charge along to their customers. In those instances, the charge appears as a line item in the telephone bill called "Universal Service."

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