Low-income residents living in Columbia Housing Authority homes will soon be able to get free smart phones and wireless internet access.
The Columbia Housing Authority Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday to partner with Global Reconnect Inc. to bring their residents free smart phones and a wireless network. All residents who earn a low-enough income to qualify for federal subsidies are eligible for the “Lifeline” phone program, which, for housing authorities, generally means all of their residents, said Global Reconnect Inc. President Saul Ramirez.
"What we want to do is ... build an empowerment opportunity for low-income residents," Ramirez said during a conference call with the commission.
The public-private partnership is possible through an extension of a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program called ConnectHome, which aims to narrow the digital divide for low-income families, CEO Phil Steinhaus said. Those without access to the internet or a phone can be at a disadvantage when so much of the nation relies on those services, he said.
Commissioners noted during the meeting that about 90 percent of high-income households are wired for high-speed internet, but less than half of low-income households are wired for similar services. The internet provides access to education, support services and employment opportunities — all of which residents may benefit from, according to the commission’s resolution.
The partnership will "make wireless internet accessible to everyone and they won't have to worry about how to pay for it," Steinhaus said.
Federal programs aimed at putting phones in the hands of low-income families started during the era of former President Ronald Reagan, Ramirez said. At the time, programs brought people wired phones. In recent years, the federal programs expanded to include broadband services with wireless phones, he said.
The money to pay for the local project will come from a federal tax surcharge everyone pays on their phone bills, Ramirez said. The organization must pay for the entire project up front in order to get the federal reimbursement, which is paid out over five years to ensure providers don’t cut their services. There is no cost estimate for the program at this time, as engineers need to survey the authority’s five housing areas first, he said.
Commissioner Max Lewis, who is also a resident living in housing provided by Columbia Housing Authority, said he received a free cell phone that is not a smart phone from a federal program five years ago. He uses his phone less than an hour a month for emergencies, he said, and doesn’t know what he would have done without that direct line in some circumstances.
“I wouldn’t be able to afford one of these otherwise,” Lewis said.
Residents won't ever be hit with surprise bills for their phones, as they will have data and call minute limitations, Ramirez said. The phones will have 500 minutes of call time, unlimited text messages and 500 megabytes of data, with the opportunity to purchase additional services.
The phones will deactivate if a resident goes over the plan limit, although they will retain the ability to call 911 and the housing authority, he said. The company can also deactivate the phones if a resident moves away, he said.
Steinhaus said the program will also allow the authority to text all of its residents at one time. If there is an emergency or residents need to be sent a reminder, the phones could prove to be an invaluable tool, he said.
Although the commission agreed to move forward with the program, there was some initial skepticism among its members.
Commissioner Genie Rogers said she was concerned about the housing authority having no recourse if a resident were to use the provided phone or internet for illegal activities.
“We all know Columbia has its fair share of gang activity and we’re giving away phones,” she said.
Commissioner John French wanted to know who would be responsible for broken devices.
Every wireless phone has a 12 month warranty, and any that break outside of that window will be swapped out by Global Reconnect, Inc., said Ramirez. There have been a few instances, for example, where a boyfriend repeatedly smashed his girlfriend’s phone, but if broken phones are a repetitive issue, the company will reach out to figure out what is going on, he said.
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