The Hayride

The Abuse Of The Free Cell Phones

The Abuse Of The Free Cell Phones
February 12
10:12 2012

“Where can I get one of those free cell phones?” a reader asked me a few months ago.

I had no idea what the man was talking about until I heard a couple of radio talk show hosts early Friday morning. They said Uncle Sam spent $1.6 billion in 2011 to cover free cell phones for 12.5 million wireless accounts.

Actually, the government isn’t paying for the program. You and I are every time we pay our monthly telephone bills. Check your next statement. My January bill included $3.22 listed under “Federal Universal Service Charge.” I should also mention that our wireless bill for two cell phones totaled $115.27.

I found a story at on the Internet dated Feb. 8 that filled in a lot of blank spots. The free phone program dates back to the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Federal Communications Commission created the Universal Service Fund to make land line phones more available to low-income Americans.

The Lifeline Assistance Program administers the USF, and it really took off when cell phones also became available in 2005. In 2008, the federal government paid $772 million for phones and monthly bills, and the program has mushroomed to become a $1.6 billion annual enterprise.

Individuals can qualify for a free phone and get 250 free minutes every month in a number of ways. They have to be enrolled in one of many federal programs that are available. They include Medicaid, which is the health care system for the poor, food stamps, Section 8 housing, free school lunches or they have to make below 150 percent of the poverty level. That’s $33,525 a year for a family of four.

Promoters of the assistance program say the free phone isn’t a cheap or wireless phone or a discounted model.

“You won’t get an iPhone, Android or Blackberry, but you’ll get a basic, modern phone,” said Lifeline.

Telephone companies set up the free phone service, and they get up to $10 a month for each person who signs up. Major companies offer the service through related companies like TracFone, SafeLink and Assurance Wireless.

Some citizens definitely need and deserve special help from the government. I came across a couple of examples. The Dayton (Ohio) Daily News in a story last November wrote about one man’s plight.

Tommy Whiteman, 29, of Centerville, Ohio, was diagnosed with cancer when he was 12, the newspaper said. And although his cancer been in remission since 1996, the treatment caused him a lot of health problems that left him unable to work. Whiteman, who is on a fixed Social Security income, has four children under age 9, has to have regular doctor’s appointments and occasionally needs an ambulance.

“This (the free phone) is what I bounce back on,” he told the Daily News. “It’s a blessing actually.”

Many Louisiana citizens qualified for the free phones after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The agency administering the program said in 2010, “It’s a situation like this that cries out for a program like Lifeline, and we welcome our Louisiana friends to and encourage them to take advantage of the popular, free government cell phones program.”

OK, so is there a problem? You bet there is. Have you seen many federal government programs that don’t end up costing billions more than expected and that aren’t misused and abused?

The Dayton Daily News investigated the program and said it is so commonly abused that 26,500 Ohioans last November were notified they are violating the rules. Poor oversight is the usual villain, and that’s the case here. Phones are going to people who don’t qualify and many others have more than one phone.

The newspaper said the FCC has identified 269,000 people in 12 states who are suspected of abusing the system. It added that competing companies don’t typically share information to check whether a new applicant is already receiving a phone. said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has been taking a closer look at the program after she received an invitation to apply for a free phone. She has asked the FCC to investigate Lifeline.

I didn’t have an answer for the reader who asked me some months ago about where he could get a free cell phone, and that bothered me. However, I felt somewhat relieved when I read the story that said this is “a government program that relatively few Americans knew existed.”

Extra fees on monthly bills are a constant source of complaints from telephone subscribers. And finding out this free cell phone program is funded by one of those fees doesn’t make us feel any better.

Giving free phones to hardship cases would be more acceptable if we had faith the truly needy were the only ones being served. That isn’t the case here, and I’m not sure the federal government will be able to police it well enough to keep it honest.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the Lake Charles American Press, has covered people and politics for more than ÿve decades. Contact him at 494-4025 or

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  1. Jwprunner
    Jwprunner February 12, 23:37

    What the story does not mention is that telecommunications carriers contribute the the Universal Service Fund. Additionally, in the case of Assurance Wireless the carrier pays for the phone, the charger, the manual, the shipping and the cost of the customer maintenance and management.

    • Lberlan
      Lberlan February 13, 16:08

      How do you suppose the carrier pays. That’s right they fold those expenses into paying customers bills. Get a clue there is no free lunch. We are broke. Stop spending money we don’t have!!!!!!

    • Oyochickporvida
      Oyochickporvida February 13, 16:09

       and where do you think those companies get their money?  From higher prices passed on to legitimate consumers.  Just as stores have to pass on the cost of shoplifting to their ‘GOOD” customers, so do these phone companies pass on their losses to US!! 

    • Guest
      Guest February 24, 09:54

       Don’t worry.  They make plenty from the government fund to recoup their investment.  No company would do this for free.  All of these free carriers are associated with one of the big name companies and they’re not going to give these thing away out of the goodness of their hearts.  They do it to line their pockets.

  2. Emensh
    Emensh February 13, 11:43

    Evan is a single father of two children.  One of his two children is a special needs child.  Evan was a sales manager for an engineering firm that manufactured parts for automobile manufacturers, until he was laid off in 2008.  Evan worked very hard to find another job to support his children, to no avail.  He did whatever he could to earn a dollar to support his family. Eventually his land line and cell phones were disconnected because he could no longer pay the bill.  He had no way to communicate with specialists for his child’s care, their schools or employers.  Evan had numerous resumes on the internet for employment but with no reliable way to be reached.  After applying for and recieving a phone he updated his resumes.  Within a few weeks he received a call for an interview and shortly thereafter began a job with one of the largest firms in the country and was employed again.  He was eventually downsized again and again used a phone to find another job.  How do you expect people to dig them selves out of a hole if we do not lend them a shovel?

    • Oscar
      Oscar February 13, 12:41

      Evan didn’t have any friends or family? And how’d he get to the internet if he couldn’t afford a phone line?

      The country’s broke, brah. We don’t have any money for people to get free cell phones. People need to be able to take care of themselves.

    • Oyochickporvida
      Oyochickporvida February 13, 16:13

       You use one anecdotal story to excuse an entire system of abuses??   NO one is begrudging a person in this circumstance for getting a hand up; however, all of us who are bearing the high cost of abuse are fed up with the rest of the leeches who do NOT need it, and will not take care of themselves because they have never HAD to! 

  3. Susan_mullins40
    Susan_mullins40 February 13, 16:18

    I collect SS (which I paid into) and dont have a cell phone.  I have a land line and thats all I need.  My son is always telling me to get a free phone from the government.  I will not take what I have not paid for..

  4. Barton2398
    Barton2398 February 13, 16:33

    They have been advertising this program on tv,yes tv, for years now.I wonder if we pay for the advertising to.This ad is run quite a bit.

  5. Millie Mae
    Millie Mae February 13, 18:31

    Any relief at the idea that few knew of this program may be misplaced. It has been rather extensively advertised on TV here is Central Illinois.

  6. Phayden
    Phayden February 14, 15:14

    It was in the paper and on the tv 
    I was thinking the very same thing. (another handout I am paying for)

  7. Jwprunner
    Jwprunner February 14, 23:47

    If anyone on here who has commented should lose their jobs and their income should plummet, they would be able to apply for a free phone.  The money that you would save could be used to buy food, pay rent, pay for heat etc…. until you found another job and got back on your feet.  If you have contributed to the USF fund through either land line or cell phone service you can make use of the program when you are in need while you work on resolving your situation.  There are 13 million plus people who are without jobs in this country.  How do we expect people to go back to work without a way to call employers or get calls back from employers? 

  8. Guest
    Guest February 24, 09:48

    This is completely appalling! I
    personally know someone who is on the assurance wireless plan and they
    have a brand new IPhone on the government’s (i.e. taxpayers’) dime with
    free minutes to boot. At least he does have to pay for all the games he
    downloads, right?
    I also know that assurance wireless (the other ones probably do as
    well) pays these people who are already getting free phones and free
    minutes $1500 just to do a little commercial for them! So our tax
    dollars pay for their cell phone (which should be a privilege, not a
    right!) and then the company who’s making money hand-over-fist from
    these government payouts turn around pays them %1500 for less than one
    days’ worth of work! How many of us working class schlubs make $1500 a
    week, let alone a day?!?!
    But back to this guy I know…he is a single father who can’t really
    hold a job. He’s in sales and he applies for a multitude of jobs he’s
    not qualified for but occasionally he’ll find a sucker who feels sorry
    for him. Then he’ll work for a month or two…long enough for his employer
    to find out he’s really a schmuck..(i.e. not bothering to leave his
    house everyday for work). The only reason he’s in sales is because it
    takes a little longer to prove someone isn’t doing their job, so it buys
    him a little time (and a little more free money). Then when he loses
    that job, he goes right back to living off the government and religious
    organizations that pay for his rent, gas, insurance, electricity, water,
    etc. Then when they start prodding him to get a job again the cycle
    repeats itself.
    I think these organizations need to be investigated. I’d like to see
    our money used more wisely. I prefer to give a hand-up not a hand-out.
    And the emergency use argument? What’s wrong with a land line phone
    that costs $10 a month? There was, after all, a time (not that long ago)
    when cell phones were considered a privilege you work to earn, not a
    right simply because you exist. Free I-Phones and minutes galore is


  9. Bud Thibodaux
    Bud Thibodaux July 31, 22:30

    This is what happens when you have a give away of anything to minorities. We are paying for it not he federal goverment. One person has twelve phones and they are selling them to to drug deallers so they can't be traced. Check your phone bill under under "UNIVERAL CHARGES".

    • Patsy Hebert McLendon
      Patsy Hebert McLendon August 01, 01:29

      I have been wondering what that charge on my phone bill was. Now I know. I can hardly believe that free cells phones are given away. Since when is a cell phone a necessity?

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