Right-wing blogs have recently been attacking President Obama for allegedly providing free cell phones.
This is a not a new attack: Viral emails from 2009 falsely claimed that the President was providing welfare recipients with publicly-funded cell phones. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.
Improving access to telecommunications, including wireless phones, is a longstanding program funded by telecommunications consumers—not the federal government. President Obama does not have a direct impact on “universal service” programs that improve telecommunications access for all Americans, and to claim that the government is using taxpayer money to give away “Obama phones” is patently false.
The phone program for low-income families, “Lifeline,” is administered by a non-governmental entity called the Universal Service Administrative Company. For decades, “Lifeline” has ensured that all Americans, including “low-income consumers and those who live in rural, insular, high cost areas,” have access to affordable communications services. This ensures that eligible consumers have the opportunities and security that phone service brings, like being able to connect to jobs, family, and emergency services. Such programs are not taxpayer-funded—telecommunications customers cover the cost by paying a universal service fee, which is listed on a monthly phone bill.
In 2008, during President Bush’s term, that Lifeline program was expanded to include mobile phone service. Lifeline only offers discounted phone service, not actual cell phones—any free cell phone would be provided and paid for by a private company, not by the Lifeline program or funds from the universal service fee.
As Factcheck.org observed, “The President has no direct impact on the program and one could hardly call these devices ‘Obama phones.’” This program to help families access telephone service does not use taxpayer dollars, dates back decades, doesn’t pay for any actual phones, and has included cell phone service since before President Obama took office.
In fact, the only thing that has changed in recent years is that the FCC recently overhauled the program to eliminate fraud, waste, and abuse. The centerpiece of the anti-waste program is the new “National Lifeline Accountability Database,” which makes sure multiple phone carriers are not receiving support for the same subscriber. These changes are expected to save up to $2 billion over three years.