Network Change Throws Wrench Into Seniors' Phone Program

February 19, 2008

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Chicago-area cell phone carriers are switching to all-digital networks. That puts the kibash on analog technology that's been around since the '80s. The change makes way for more data services, like mobile Web surfing, but Chicago Public Radio's Shawn Allee reports the switch creates a hassle for some area police departments.

Verizon and AT&T yanked the plug on their analog networks yesterday, and U.S. Cellular will follow suit later this year. The switch will turn analog cell phones into expensive door stops - even phones that were being put to good use.

Consider the story of Elgin Police Officer Cherie Aschenbrenner. In 2004, she started collecting cell phones for seniors.

ASCHENBRENNER: The idea was to give 911-use-only cell phones to seniors who were on limited budgets. And didn't want to have a monthly cell-phone bill. All they wanted was a phone to dial 911.

Aschenbrenner says residents donated more than a thousand phones. She got 650 of them converted to make emergency-only calls. Then, recently, she got the news.

ASCHENBRENNER: I read it in the newspaper article - and so I started inquiring and yeah, they said it's true. The phones were gonna not work after February 19.

Or at least a majority wouldn't work. Since they're emergency-only, users can't tell. Seniors can get their models checked at phone stores, but Aschenbrenner figures she's going to have to work through her list of seniors - one by one.

ASCHENBRENNER: I don't want to have that taken away from them, so that's why we're going to continue with this program even though we got this roadblock, but we'll prevail.

A similar phones-for-seniors program in Kane County will have to check its stock of phones, too.

I'm Shawn Allee, Chicago Public Radio.