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Cellphones Become A Human Right

In only a generation, the cellphone has turned from a symbol of business and social status to a common appliance and a basic human right.

Today, through its Universal Service Fund, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) subsidizes cellphone service for low-income consumers who use a cellphone as their home’s primary phone. Some prepaid providers offer service for as little as $15 to $20/month for 200 minutes of voice calling. And carrier Leap Wireless is touting this month’s network-wide rollout of its Cricket PAYGo prepaid service. With PAYGo, instead of pre-paying for a month of service in advance, users pay only on the day they use their phone, or they pay for multiple days in advance at rates as low as $1/day of unlimited calling.

Underscoring the industry’s transformation over a generation, prepaid carrier MetroPCS this week unveiled a calling plan that enables U.S. consumers to make unlimited calls to wireline phones in more than 200 Mexican cities for only $3 a month.

With cellphones having become so affordable, the number of cellular subscriptions in the U.S. grew last year to 270.3 million, the CTIA’s semiannual subscriber survey shows. That represents a penetration rate of 88.5 percent of the U.S. population, based on the Census Bureau’s population estimate of 305.5 million as of Jan. 1.

Of course, when almost everybody has something, it becomes a human right.

On its Web site, prepaid provider TracFone Wireless contends: “Cellphone ownership is a right and an important tool for individual success in today’s world. Everyone should have a cellphone without the need for a contract or a high credit rating … TracFone Wireless is glad to lead the movement in the U.S. to make cellphone service available to everyone.”

How far we’ve come from 1991, when only 7.6 million people owned a cellphone, and they paid an average $72.74/month for service, CTIA statistics show. Among cellphone users, 63 percent used an installed 3-watt car phone rather than a lower power handheld phone or a 3-watt “transportable” phone, according to a 1991 Gallup poll conducted for Motorola. On average, 6.6 out of every 10 calls were made for business reasons, the survey found.

Back then, 64 percent of cellphone users were men, 56 percent held professional or managerial positions at work, 55 percent were college graduates and 54 percent were between the ages of 35 to 54, the survey found.

Today, phones are marketed aggressively to everyone, including pre-teens. And why not? The average monthly bill is down to $50.07, and that’s after almost two decades of inflation, and it includes family-plan bills that include as many as three to four family members.