U.S. Rep. wants to scale back $1 billion 'free' cellphone program

Posted May 7, 2012 by Andrew Moran
Arkansas Congressman Tim Griffin is looking to scale back the federal government's Lifeline program, a $1 billion annual initiative that gives low-income Americans a landline and a cellphone as part of the Universal Service Fund.
Talking on cell phone.
Talking on cell phone.
Digital Journal
Who would have thought that the federal government was in the business of distributing not only landlines but also cellphones? Well, it is, but one Republican Congressman wants to scale back the program that he argues has become a “nightmare.”
In an interview with the Daily Caller, Tim Griffin, a former Attorney for the Eastern District of Arkansas, explained that the federal government spends $1 billion per year on the Lifeline program that gives Americans with low-incomes not only landlines, but also a mobile phone with a calling plan.
Griffin, who is in his first term in Washington, proposed a bill that would scale back the program to its original intent: landlines. He argues the federal program has skyrocketed in cost and has become disastrous for the taxpayer.
“People are not only getting [one free cell phone], they’re getting multiples. There are reports of people getting 10, 20, 30 — just routinely getting more than one, selling them, storing them up, whatever,” stated Griffin. “And they’re not just phones that are able to dial 911. They’re smartphones. They’re the type of phones that you and I pay hundreds of dollars a month to have contracts for.”
His constituents were the first to warn him about the abuse. Griffin received a phone call from one of his constituents informing him about someone he or she knows who would work only a certain number of hours per week because that person would not be able to receive their government assistance. “And that person has multiple cell phones, and gets them new every month with new minutes.”
The Republican leader also blamed the cell phone companies because he says they are adding to the issue by handing out as many phones as possible so they can receive more money from the federal government.
“And if you want to know where the money is coming from, just look at your cell phone bill: a line called the ‘universal service fund,’” said Griffin. “I’m sure you, like I, have often wondered how a simple phone bill has pages and pages of fees and charges and stuff that you have no idea what it’s for. Well, this is one of those lines.”
The Universal Service Fund (USF) was established by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1997 as part of the Congress’ universal service goals mandated in the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It urged all telecommunications providers to contribute to a federal universal service program.
Lifeline gives a discount on monthly basic service of up to $10 per month for landlines (location varies). Earlier this year, the FCC revised parts of the low-income assistance program to reduce fraud and abuse.
“I don’t think the federal government should be providing free cell phones, and it’s an insult to America’s hardworking taxpayers to wait around to see if the FCC’s reforms actually address the costly abuses they created,” said Griffin.
The government is now transitioning into other areas and now it isn’t just for phones. The FCC approved a six-year project that would transfer funds from USF to an annual $4.5 billion Connect America Fund for broadband Internet expansion.