The video of an Obama supporter bragging about having an “Obama phone” has gone viral on the web, but where do these “free cell phones” come from?
The program is called Lifeline, established in 1984, originally created to subsidize landline phone service for low income Americans, funded by government-collected telecommunication fees, paid by consumers.
In 2008, the program was expanded to support cell phones which quickly escalated the cost of the program. In 2008 the program cost $772 million, but by 2011 it cost $1.6 billion.
A 2011 audit found that 269,000 wireless Lifeline subscribers were receiving free phones and monthly service from two or more carriers. Several websites have been created to promote “free” government cell phones, including the”The Obama Cell Phone” website at Obamaphone.net.
Rep. Tim Griffin R-Ark. has proposed a bill to eliminate federal subsidies for free cell phones and has produced a great YouTube video highlighting the runaway cost of the program. The program has also been highlighted for reform by Senator Claire McCaskill D-Mo.
Pressure to reform the program led the FCC to announce an effort in February to “reduce the potential for fraud while cutting red tape for consumers and providers” by the end of 2013.