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Cellphones for seniors and cheap service are in easy reach

Competition among wireless providers has lowered prices for phones that have large buttons, oversized digital readouts and hearing-aid compatibility but typically can't access the Internet.

January 17, 2011|By Gregory Karp

If you think Bluetooth is a rare dental condition and an app is what you eat before the entree, you might not be a candidate for today's high-tech, whiz-bang smart phones. Instead, you might be happier with a mobile phone geared toward seniors.

Those phones typically don't have Web-surfing capability, GPS maps and video games. Instead they have large buttons, oversized digital readouts and hearing-aid compatibility, along with a relatively simple calling plan.

Although senior-friendly phones aren't new, their lower prices and variety are. A recent price skirmish among wireless companies means seniors can get an easy-to-use cellphone and cheap service to go with it, said Mac Haddow, senior fellow on public policy for the independent and nonprofit Alliance for Generational Equity.

Telecommunications analyst Roger Entner of Recon Analytics called senior citizens "the last untapped segment" of wireless customers.

Although about 90% of Americans ages 18 to 49 own cellphones, only 57% of seniors 65 and older have them, according to the Pew Research Center. And fewer than one-fourth of wireless phones are purchased by adults 55 and older, according to the latest numbers by market research firm NPD Group.

Heightened interest in the senior market recently among wireless phone companies has meant more offerings and lower prices, Entner said.

Seniors can get a simple cellphone for about $15, with service as low as about $7 a month, according to an analysis by the alliance's Senior Advocate Health & Safety Project. AGE said it conducted the analysis because price is often cited as a reason an estimated 13 million to 19 million U.S. seniors don't own cellphones, said David Herman, spokesman for the group.

"We're in an environment where a lot of senior citizens are having to decide between rent and medicine or medicine and food, and dollars are critical," Herman said. "The less expensive we can make this, the more people we're going to have that will use a service they desperately need."

Elizabeth Marshall, 82, of Cazanovia, N.Y., gushes about her new rose-colored Motorola phone. "It's very attractive," she said.

She got the phone free from Consumer Cellular Inc. and pays $10 a month for phone service with no free minutes. She pays a rate of 25 cents a minute.

"I'm on Social Security, and funds are tight," Marshall said. "I didn't want to go and get a high-priced thing."

Marshall, who has a slight hearing problem, said she likes that she can turn up the ring and the volume on the earpiece.

"Seniors as a group have either embraced technology or are kind of scared of it," Herman said. "Larger keyboard, the [oversized] readouts, compatibility with hearing aids — these are the critical factors. It's not whether they can text their buddy on Facebook."

In checking out calling plans, AGE looked at only prepaid plans, which refers to a pay-as-you-go system. That's opposed to being committed to a contract plan with a pricey bucket of calling minutes that many seniors might not use, Haddow said.

"We just couldn't find one that looked good," he said of contract plans.

Prepaid plans have no penalties if users decide to exit the plan early, and prices include all fees and taxes that are tacked on to the monthly bills of contract plans.

The Citizens Utility Board, an Illinois consumers group, found in a study of cellphone bills that consumers on a contract plan had an average of about six hours of unused minutes left over each month.

"One of the biggest enemies for seniors, and anyone, is a needlessly bloated calling plan, a plan with way too many minutes that charges them way too much money for calls they're never going to make," board spokesman Jim Chilsen said. "The cellphone market is like the Wild West; it's buyer beware. It's especially true for seniors, who might not have as much cellphone usage and only need an emergency phone."

An option for seniors on a very tight budget might be a free cellphone and "lifeline" service.

Someone receiving financial aid from state or federal programs, such as public housing assistance, food stamps or Medicaid, might qualify for a free cellphone and service instead of a free land line home phone. They also might qualify if their household income is below the poverty guidelines set by their state or the federal government.

To learn more, check out lifeline wireless providers such as SafeLink Wireless and Assurance Wireless. Lifeline wireless service is available in 31 states.

And if a senior needs a mobile phone only for emergencies, he or she can carry any charged wireless phone. Calls to 911 are connected, even without a calling plan.

Here are three prepaid phones recommended by the Alliance for Generational Equity, which looked at only nationally available wireless providers that offer nationwide coverage without roaming charges. It said it has no connection with these companies.

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