Beam: Free phones go to dead people

By By Jim Beam / American Press

Those free, government-subsidized cell phones are back in the news again. A reader asked just over a year ago where he could

get one, and I wasn’t even aware there was such a program. Over 17 million persons have free phones now, but many of them

don’t qualify for the service.

U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., wants to do something about that after receiving two cell phones that his constituents told

him were sent to their deceased parents. National Journal talked to Griffin about his plans.

“Is it really the role of the federal government to be providing people with free cell phones in the first place?” Griffin

asked. “Where does it end? Free iPads for everyone? Free home computers? Free Internet? Free cars?”

Individuals can qualify for a free

phone (land line or cell) and get 250 free minutes a month in a number

of ways. They have

to be enrolled in at least one federal program that is available.

That could be Medicaid, the health care program for the

poor, food stamps, Section 8 housing or free school lunches or

make below 150 percent of the poverty level. That is $33,525

a year for a family of four.

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. Participants don’t get a fancy

cell phone, but the companies say it’s a basic, modern phone.

The federal government spent $2.2

billion on the program in 2012. National Journal said the money doesn’t

technically come

from federal taxes, but is paid by telephone subscribers. The

money comes from the Universal Service Fund that gets its revenues

from fees that show up on most telephone bills. It is called the

“Federal Universal Service Charge” that runs as high as $3.22

a month on some telephone bills.

The program was started to provide land

line telephones for people to use in emergencies. In 1996, Congress

authorized the

Federal Communications Commission to create the Universal Service

Fund in order to make more phones available to low-income

Americans. The Lifeline Assistance Program administers the USF.

Cell phones became eligible for the

program in 2005, and many Louisianians qualified after Hurricane Katrina

that same year.

Lifeline welcomed the new subscribers to and encouraged them to take advantage of

what had become

a popular free government cell phone program.

Like any government handout, there has

been abuse. National Journal said the situation got so bad the FCC

tightened its eligibility

rules last year. It added that the Wall Street Journal did a study

that showed 41 percent of 6 million Lifeline subscribers

couldn’t demonstrate their eligibility and will be dropped from

the program.

Griffin said he wonders whether people really need the free phones. And he thinks those who do could probably afford to pay

a minimal monthly fee.

“I don’t have any data on what people use them for, but anecdotally, I don’t think the predominant use is for emergencies...,”

he told the magazine.

The Dayton (Ohio) Daily News talked about one man’s use of a free cell phone in a story it did in late 2011. Tommy Whiteman,

29, of Centerville, Ohio, was diagnosed with cancer when he was 12, but it has been in remission since 1996.

Whiteman told the newspaper his

treatments created health problems for him and he is unable to work. He

is on a fixed Social

Security income, has four children and has to have regular

doctor’s appointments. Occasionally, he said he needs an ambulance.

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

No one knows exactly how many of those

free phone users are in similar circumstances. As Griffin said,

accountability appears

to be non-existent, and he has cell phones sent to dead people as

evidence. Others have noted that some households have two

of those free phones.

Griffin has introduced a bill he says is designed to bring the program back to what it was when it first started. He thinks

a land line phone is all people need for emergencies, but he will have a difficult time getting others to agree because of

mushrooming cell phone use. There are 13 million cell phone users among the 17 million who received the free phones.

National Journal said Griffin sees the

program as a boondoggle for people to get free phones and for phone

companies to get

more customers. He wants some assurance that this government

handout only goes to deserving people. Those of us who are paying

that Federal Universal Service Charge on our phone bills would

also like to be sure our monthly fees are going to the truly


Figuring out how to bring about accountability won’t be easy, but the FCC needs to at least put forth a good-faith effort

to find a way to do it. Dead people don’t need cell phones.

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