“Everybody in Cleveland… (every) minority got Obama phone!” she shouted. “Keep Obama in president, you know? He gave us a phone!”
The columnists and radio hosts had a field day.
“So these are the people that don’t like Romney because of what he said about the 47 percent? No, these are the 47 percent,” Rush Limbaugh said. “She knows how to get this free Obama phone. She knows everything about it.”
But the truth is that no policy Obama has enacted would put an “Obama phone” in anyone’s hand. The real policy is called “Lifeline,” and it dates back to another Democratic administration (Franklin Roosevelt’s) but was expanded under Republican ones, too.
In fact, it was President George W. Bush who approved expanding the Universal Service Fund to pay for cell phone service for the poor.
The USF goes back to the Communications Act of 1934, which sought to expand telephone service for rural Americans. And within a few years, that goal was achieved – virtually every corner of America had phone service.
Like any good government program, once it accomplished its goal, it didn’t go away — it found new, bigger goals to spend that tax money toward.
The program only officially pays for the monthly service, but most cell phone companies throw in a cell phone for free with a contract. The FCC refers to it as the “Lifeline” program, because of its stated goal of making sure everyone has access to communications during basic emergencies.
As The Hill reports, “But even the FCC acknowledges that the costs of the program have ballooned in recent years. By 2011, Lifeline was costing phone subscribers $1.75 billion per year.”
Congress is already acting to rein in the program.
“In January, the FCC overhauled the program in an attempt to bring down its cost,” The Hill explains. “The commission toughened eligibility standards and created a database to ensure that multiple companies were not receiving subsidies to provide service to the same customer. The reforms are on track to bring down the cost of the program by $200 million this year and $2 billion over three years, according to the FCC.”
But more fundamental discussions need to take place. Are cell phones a basic human need — something a government safety net should provide, when all other resources are exhausted? Perhaps; perhaps not. But that’s not the discussion we’re hearing now.
Second, is it time to abolish the USF altogether? Its initial goal has long since been accomplished. Perhaps; perhaps not. Let’s talk about it.
But at the very least, let’s stop referring to “Obama phones.” If we’re going to be precise, they’re “George Bush phones.”