Cell Phone Policy

Last Revised: 
June 18, 2012

University of Nebraska-Lincoln Communication Equipment & Services Policy

Reason for Policy Change

Until recently, cell phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) and smartphones, as well as their related services, were considered to be “listed property” for which detailed recordkeeping was required and the personal use by employees constituted a taxable benefit. UNL’s policy regarding cell phones was adopted on March 10, 2008, to provide guidance regarding the associated compliance issues.

On September 19, 2011, the Department of the Treasury, through its Internal Revenue Service, issued Notice 2011-72 in which guidance on the taxability of employer-provided cell phones was furnished. In brief, “noncompensatory” employer-provided cell phones are no longer listed property and their incidental personal use by employees is regarded as a de minimus benefit that is not subject to taxation.

Note: Downloadable policy-related documents can be found at the end of this page.


Regardless of the tax implications, the business need for communication equipment and services was the emphasis in previous policy and remains the emphasis in current policy. No University resources should be expended unless there is a clear business need to do so. Personal convenience of an employee is not a valid business justification.


This policy applies to all UNL faculty, staff, and student employees who require use of a mobile communication device to perform their job responsibilities.

Communication Equipment & Services

University departments have a business need for communication equipment/services. Departments are responsible for identifying those employees who require the use of fixed (e.g., corded desk phones, computers at work stations) and/or mobile communication equipment/services (e.g., cell phones, personal digital assistants, smartphones, portable computers, Internet access) to carry out their assigned duties. (See “Business Need” later in this policy for guidance in making these determinations.)

Options for Obtaining Mobile Equipment/Service

For any employee a department identifies as having an ongoing business need for mobile communication equipment/services, the department may choose between two options. Please note that the department is not required to choose the same option for all departmental employees. The employee has no authority in this election. These options are available for faculty, staff, and student employees.

Option 1: Employee-Provided Equipment/Service

Departments may provide a taxable stipend that will cover the business use of communication equipment and services. The stipend can take either the form of a one-time payment or continuous payments. It is understood that the employee’s stipend is sufficient to cover the business use of the equipment/service. There is no additional reimbursement for business use (e.g., occasional roaming charges). This arrangement allows for unlimited personal use of the equipment/service. The equipment remains the property of the employee. Departments may provide stipends only for the equipment and rate plan appropriate for the business use associated with the employee’s University function. Employees wanting to enhance the equipment or the rate plan for personal use may do so at their own expense. The stipend is taxable because this option provides for unlimited personal use and the equipment belongs to the employee, not to the University.

Option 2: University-Provided Equipment/Service, De Minimis Personal Use Allowed

The University acquires the communication equipment/service and assigns it to a specific individual who is to use it for business purposes. Incidental personal use is permitted. The equipment remains the property of UNL. At the request of the supervisor or at employee’s separation, the employee must return the equipment. (This is also the case when changing from this option to Option 1.)

When the University is providing the communication equipment/service, the lowest cost option available to accommodate the particular business need shall be utilized. University-paid calling plans must provide call detail to enable monitoring of business use.

The two options above may be applied individually, or to groups. In other words, a work unit is not obligated to select one option for all of its members. This recognizes that individual business needs may vary within organizations. When choosing either option, it is recommended that campus units consider the administration effort for each option.

Smartphones and PDAs (personal digital assistants, e.g., iPhones and Blackberries) may be purchased by the University for an employee’s use while allowing a stipend (Option 1) for the employee’s monthly service plan. In this case, the smartphone or PDA remains the property of the University (Option 2) and must be returned to UNL by the employee when the employee no longer requires it for business purposes.

Note that open records laws (e.g., Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA) may apply to communication records (e.g., bills, details of calls) for services paid for with University funds.

Exclusions & Other Arrangements

Pagers and two-way radios are considered business only applications. They may be provided by the University with no taxability to the employee.

Shared phones, also known as duty phones, are typically assigned to a group of persons on a rotating or shift basis, or to individuals for a specific period of time (e.g., summer conference). Of the options available under this policy, Option 2, University-Provided Equipment/Service is for this situation.

Effective Date & Period of Transition to Full Implementation

This policy will be implemented by ________, 2012. By that date, all divisions/departments must have policies and procedures in place to implement this policy. Existing communications contracts should be honored.

Departments should review which employees are assigned University-provided communication equipment/service to carry out their assigned duties, and should ensure there remains a business need for them to have the equipment/service. If not, the department should reassign the equipment/service where there is a need, or retrieve the equipment and cancel the service. University property may not be sold to, or given to, anyone. This means, for example, that if transitioning from a University-supplied cell phone and service (Option 2) to a stipend for an employee owned cell phone and service (Option 1), the University-supplied cell phone must be either reassigned to another employee under Option 2, turned in to the service provider, or turned into the University for disposal as surplus equipment.

Business Need

The department is responsible for determining the business need for any communication equipment/service, be it fixed or mobile. Cell phones, PDAs, or smartphones should not be selected as an alternative to other means of communication -- e.g., land-lines, pagers, and radio phones -- when such alternatives would provide adequate but less costly service to the university. Examples of business needs for mobile equipment/service include:

  • A requirement to travel frequently to do business, across a geographic area away from the home office, and great amounts of time are spent in transit.

  • A need for others to communicate with the employee about University business when the employee is away from his/her office or other UNL worksite.

  • A need for the employee to communicate with others regarding University business when the employee is away from his/her office.

  • The employee supports or is responsible for programs, services or systems that necessitate frequent and immediate communications throughout the day or after hours.

Use of University-provided communication equipment/service in any manner that is contrary to local, state, or federal laws constitutes misuse and may result in disciplinary action, up to and including confiscation of communication equipment/service, and termination of employment.

Cell Phone Plan Rates for Stipends (Option 1)

The rates for cell phone stipends are produced by Business & Finance. They include plans that recognize geographic communication requirements (i.e., national, international) and the volume requirements (i.e., number of minutes per month) of employee job responsibilities. The amounts included in the rates include taxes. These amounts will inform the departments as they consider the appropriate stipend for individuals or groups. This leaves the determination of how much business use is anticipated to the departments by allowing a percentage of the rates to be applied. For example, if a department determines that an employee’s responsibilities would require half of the minutes allowed for the least expensive local calling plan, it could decide to apply 50% of that rate as a stipend. (Note in this example that the employee would be taxed on the stipend. However, there is a benefit to the employee of unlimited personal use.)

Note: the stipend is not intended to cover the actual cost of the cell phone selected, and owned, by the employee. Employees are thereby free to choose services and equipment that exceed their business needs (i.e., upgrade for personal reasons). Cell phone plans typically provide for discounted cell phones.

Department Responsibilities

Deans, Directors and Department Chairs are ultimately responsible for the use of communication equipment/services. They should designate an individual to have primary responsibility to oversee the equipment/services, including:

  • Making the initial recommendation on whether equipment is provided to an employee and on what basis.

  • Selecting appropriate services based on business use.

  • Monitoring usage on a regular basis for policy compliance, continued business need, and appropriate use by reference to the documentation necessary to prove the business use of the equipment/service.

  • Annually review existing equipment/services to ensure they are needed and represent the best options (most economical) given the business use.

At the request of a supervisor or at the employee’s separation, all equipment (including chargers, extra batteries, hands-free devices, etc.) is returned to the department and the service is cancelled.

Adopted March 10, 2008
Amended June 18, 2012