The Abuse Of The Free Cell Phones

“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 [email protected].

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