Ariz. congressman wants to disconnect $1 billion free cell phone program

Alexis Levinson - The Daily Caller
May 7, 2012

No one likes paying cell phone bills. What if you could get a free phone with a calling plan whose cost was paid by the federal government? What if you could have eight free cell phones? You can, and people do, Rep. Tim Griffin told The Daily Caller. The annual bill runs over $1 billion, and he’s trying to stop it.

The federal government started the Lifeline program to provide phones to low-income Americans. It originally provided only landlines, but cell phones were added several years ago.

“That’s when the program absolutely exploded and has become a nightmare,” Griffin said in a phone interview with TheDC. Calling it “Uncle Sam’s unlimited plan,” the Arkansas Republican has proposed a bill that would scale back the program to its original form: landlines only.

“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,” Griffin said.

“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.”

Griffin said his constituents have told him about people abusing the government benefit.

“I had someone call me this morning telling me they had somebody who would only work a certain number of hours a week because if they worked too many hours a week then they couldn’t get their government assistance. And that person has multiple cell phones, and gets them new every month with new minutes,” he said, sounding outraged.

The cell phone companies add to the problem, he said.

“Every one they give out, they get money for from the federal government. So they have an incentive to give as many away as possible,” Griffin explained. “And that’s exactly what they’re doing, and they’re making a killing.”

“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.’ 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.”

Griffin said the program needs to return to its roots, eliminating the cell phone benefit entirely.

“The federal government should only be providing services for emergencies. You and I, taxpayers, shouldn’t be paying for cell phones so someone can have a social life,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s appropriate.”

“People get landlines out of necessity because they’re homebound or whatever, and they need that ability to call from their home if there’s an emergency,” he said.

With a cell phone, he charged, “you’re getting 100 minutes a month. Are people using 100 minutes a month to make 911 calls? Are people using 100 minutes a month for emergencies, for necessities? I don’t think so.”

If the program were scaled back to cover only landlines, Griffin told TheDC, some of the abuse would disappear.

“You don’t have a big incentive for people to have numerous landlines in their homes,” he said.

The Federal Communications Commission, the government agency that is in charge of Lifeline, has also called for an overhaul of the program to deal with fraud and abuse. The FCC’s proposed changes call for a database to keep track of who already has phones, to prevent any one person from gaming the system. The proposed overhaul would also institute “a one-per-household rule applicable to all providers in the program.”

That might make Griffin’s bill redundant, but he is adamant that swift action by Congress is necessary.

“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,” he insisted.

The FCC did not respond to request for comment.

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