(KPIX 5) – Californians, including those who are homeless, are now able to get free cell phones and service thanks to the recent expansion of a statewide program.

While California has long provided free or heavily discounted landline service to low income Californians, it’s one of the last states to offer subsidized cell phone service to the poor.

Doris Sermone is taking advantage of the program, known as Lifeline. The Sunnyvale resident—who gets by on $800 a month from Social Security—has a landline, but worries when she leaves her apartment.

“These days you just never know. (A cell phone) would be a security blanket for me,” she told ConsumerWatch.

Last week, Sermone contacted Assurance Wireless, one of four wireless providers approved to offer free or low fee cell phone and cell phone service to needy Californians. The other three providers are Reachout, Telscape and Cricket.

“California is a little late to the party,” consumer advocate Joe Rideout said. “This is for the four million Californians who are living in poverty,” Rideout said.

His group, Consumer Action, has compared all four providers plans and Ridout said there are significant differences.

“Some of them will require you to pay for a phone from them to get things going. Others will provide a phone for free, but you may have to pay an activation fee,” Rideout said.

To qualify for the Lifeline cell phone program, individuals have to earn less than $14,700 a year. The program is financed by Universal Service Fees, mandatory charges tacked on to most every phone bill in California.

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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