Beam: Free phones go to dead people

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 FreeGovernmentCellPhones.net 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 needy.

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 jbeam@americanpress.com