California is becoming the latest state to participate in a federal program that gives away hundreds of millions of dollars of free cell phones with prepaid service to indigent and homeless residents.

After four years of navigating bureaucratic red tape, California recently hired a vendor to take on the job of offering the pre-paid cell phones to an estimated 4.6 million eligible residents. At an average cost of $100 per phone, the tab in the Golden State alone could eventually reach $460 million annually.

The funding comes from Lifeline Assistance, one of four federally mandated Universal Service Fund programs that provide landline, cellular and Internet service to the underprivileged.  A monthly fee collected from each paying telephone subscriber underwrites the cost for the cell phone vendor.

The programs have generated controversy and concerns on both sides of the political aisle as their costs have skyrocketed to $8.1 billion annually.  The Lifeline cell phone giveaway program alone has doubled in size the last four years to $1.75 billion annually.

Conservative Republicans have targeted Lifeline for its growing cost, while Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri warned of potential abuses in the program when she got a solicitation suggesting she was eligible for one of the free cell phones.

California, however, makes no apologies for jumping in and offering its poor free cell phones. The state already has been using state funds to provide hardline phones in the homes of 1.46 million needy residents. Now it is joining the federal wireless program.

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