This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture


Please sir, can I have some more minutes?

This Magazine Staff

Last fall, I broke my cell phone (a.k.a., alarm clock/voice recorder/little black book/lifeline) and in the two days it took to get a new one, my life stopped. I fell behind on assignments, scrambled to find phone numbers and slept with my laptop next to me because 1) I needed it to act as a pseudo alarm clock and 2) I was convinced that a burglar would pick that night to break into my apartment (which, in reality, is pretty safe) and without a landline, I wanted my computer close by so I could Facebook 911.
Now, I’m a student, not Ari Gold, but suffice to say I cannot live without my cell phone, even for two days.
So the question is this: if they are so necessary, should Canada be doling out cell phones like food stamps and free mittens to those who can’t afford them? No? But the Joneses are doing it!
According to a Toronto Star feature, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has introduced a program–Safelink–to provide eligible Americans with 68 minutes a month on a free cell phone with all the bells and whistles (voice mail, caller ID, call waiting and texting).
The Star’s Lynda Hurst writes, “In the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. has increased the drive to ensure all citizens have basic phone services and access to help in times of emergency.”

Safelink, provided by TracFone Wireless Inc., is currently available in Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Virginia and, according to the website, will soon be available in 10 additional states, including New York, Connecticut and DC.
Judging by the comment’s on Hurst’s article, the public is less than thrilled about the new initiative, the main complaint being that (surprise, surprise) a cell phone is a luxury and should be reserved for those who work hard to pay for it.
I think an interesting point is that while no one would argue that access to a landline isn’t important to any person’s success and safety, many seem to have a hard time swallowing the notion that cell phone access carries the same importance, that it is more necessity than luxury. Now, if one already has a landline, I might agree, but the program is meant to give phone services to the 7 million Americans without it, not to give cake to starving peasants.
Let’s not forget that in 2009, it’s not uncommon for an individual to forgo landline service in favour of a cell phone.
Aside from the obvious benefits of a cell phone over a landline (a cell could be accessible 24/7, in case of an emergency; the owner is much less likely to miss an important call, possibly from an employer, etc.), a landline requires a permanent address, not always a guarantee for those in the low-income bracket who might often be moving from one cheap apartment to another. Secondly, the cost of a basic landline is comparable (especially in the U.S. where cell phones are much cheaper than they are here) to that of a cell phone. Providing landline service on principle would be like giving someone a tambourine for entertainment when for the same price you could have given him an iPod.
On the other side of the coin, behind all of the philanthropy and good intentions is a cell phone company. Is it impossible that they saw dollar signs in FCC subsidies or considered the millions of potential customers when they signed on to help the less fortunate? When the free cell phones run out of their allotted 68 minutes, it’s up to the user to pay for extra.
What’s that saying? Nothing in life is free?
Regardless of all the pro and con arguments, the richest irony is that a nation that’s committed to putting a cell phone in every pocket for safety still hasn’t made it a priority to put a universal health care card in every wallet.

Show Comments