While programs to provide free or discounted telephone services do exist, they have been in place for many years and were not initiated by President Obama.
The 1996 Act requires the Commission and the states to ensure that affordable, quality, telecommunications services are available to all Americans. Consistent with Congress's mandate, the Commission sets in motion universal service policies that will ensure all Americans, including low-income consumers and those who live in rural, insular, high cost areas, shall have affordable service and will help to connect eligible schools, libraries, and rural health care providers to the global telecommunications network. The new plan fully funds Congress's universal service goals, while ensuring adequate incentives for continued investment in the local telecommunications network. The Order also ensures that rural, small, and high cost telephone companies continue to receive the necessary universal service support.Information about the programs on the FCC website notes:
Telephone service is considered a necessity for daily modern life. Yet the cost of starting and maintaining such service may be too high for some consumers. Under Congressional mandate, the federal Universal Service Fund (USF) supports the Lifeline Assistance and Link-Up America programs. These programs provide discounts on basic monthly service and initial installation or activation fees for telephone service at the primary residence to income-eligible consumers. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), with the help of the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), administers the USF.Moreover, even before the 1996 act was initiated, other informal programs to provide universal telecommunications service were in place including a version of the Lifeline program.
All telecommunications service providers and certain other providers of telecommunications must contribute to the federal USF based on a percentage of their interstate and international end-user telecommunications revenues. These companies include wireline phone companies, wireless phone companies, paging service companies, and certain Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) providers.The Universal Service Fund is administrated by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), "an independent, not-for-profit corporation designated as the administrator of the federal Universal Service Fund by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)".
Some consumers may notice a “Universal Service” line item on their telephone bills. This line item appears when a company chooses to recover its USF contributions directly from its customers by billing them this charge. The FCC does not require this charge to be passed on to customers. Each company makes a business decision about whether and how to assess charges to recover its Universal Service costs. These charges usually appear as a percentage of the consumer’s phone bill. Companies that choose to collect Universal Service fees from their customers cannot collect an amount that exceeds their contribution to the USF. They also cannot collect any fees from a Lifeline program participant.
Over twenty years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) created the Lifeline Program to help guarantee Universal Service in the US. The Lifeline Program provides discounted telephone service to low-income families and individuals that otherwise would find it difficult to pay for telephone service. To qualify for Lifeline Support, Families or individuals have to be either enrolled in a State social service program or qualify under the U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines. Eligibility varies by state.Thus, the claim that it was the Obama administration that created the scheme is clearly untrue. Even Safelink Wireless, the specific program referred to in the message, was initiated before Obama came to power, during the administration of President George Bush. Calling the free cell phones provided by Safelink Wireless "Obama Phones" is therefore misleading to say the least. As Justin Bank of FactCheck.org pithily puts it:
In April 2008, the FCC approved TracFone as an Eligible Telecommunications Carrier (ETC) to provide Lifeline Service in 11 states. Subsequently, TracFone has been approved in an additional 9 states and is currently providing service in 19 states. Today, there are over 1,700 ETC’s providing Lifeline service throughout the United States.
The president has no direct impact on the program, and one could hardly call these devices "Obama Phones," as the e-mail author does. This specific program, SafeLink, started under President George Bush, with grants from an independent company created under President Bill Clinton, which was a legacy of an act passed under President Franklin Roosevelt, which was influenced by an agreement reached between telecommunications companies and the administration of President Woodrow Wilson.Of course, it is accurate to state that many US telecommunications consumers do indirectly fund the phone service programs via Universal Service Fees collected by their phone service providers. However, it is not true that taxpayer money is being redistributed to fund the programs as suggested in the email.
Wilson Phones, anyone?
Last updated: 18th November 2009
First published: 18th November 2009
Write-up by Brett M. Christensen
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