13 INVESTIGATES: Free federal phones - WVTM-TV: News, Weather, and Sports for Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Free federal phones

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BIRMINGHAM, AL -

As the Presidential race heated up last fall, one hot button issue which 'rang out' stemmed from tax-funded cell phones for the poor.

In fact, President Obama supporter Michelle Dowery made headlines outside a Mitt Romney rally.

"Everybody in Cleveland who a minority got an Obamaphone.  Keep Obama in President, you know?

He gave us a phone," Dowery explained to a reporter.

Darrell Baker from the Alabama Public Service Commission disagrees with Dowery's assessment.

"Well, that is not true.  The program actually started in the 1980's under the Reagan Administration," Baker pointed out.

He said long distance providers started charging customers an extra fee to fund a program called 'Lifeline' in 1984.

It was designed to provide free land-line phone service to the poor.

The funding comes from the Universal Service Fund.

If you study your monthly phone bill, you will see the fee under 'Universal Service Charge'.

The amount varies by phone company.

Cell phones were added to the Lifeline program in April 2008, while President George Bush was still in office.

To qualify, you have to be receiving aid from programs like:  Social Security, Medicaid, Section 8 Housing, Food Stamps and the Federal Free-Lunch Program.

For more information about program eligibility and which local providers offer the free cell phones, click here.

Baker said when Lifeline started offering free cell phones; there was virtually no verification of someone's eligibility.

"The consumer who applied for Lifeline had to self-certify that they were eligible.  Documentation was not necessarily required.  And really there was no way to check and verify that a consumer was using more than one lifeline discount," Baker said.

So the federal government had to take a Lifeline customer at their word that they were, in fact, eligible.

Unfortunately, many abused that trust to get their hands on a free phone.

That included thousands of people, right here in Alabama.

As we speak, there are 211,519 cell phones in Alabama funded through Lifeline.

That is one in every 23 Alabamians.

Over the last year and a half, the FCC started auditing the Lifeline subscriber rolls.

They have found that 34,250 Alabama households had more than one free phone, which was costing the taxpayers $3.6 million a year.

The FCC tells us those ineligible subscribers have since been de-enrolled.

In a statement, spokesperson Mark Wigfield said, "We take any abuse of our rules seriously - and are acting aggressively to enforce them in order to preserve this program for the less fortunate among us who rely on lifeline to reach emergency services, jobs and loved ones."

The FCC has implemented a handful Lifeline eligibility reforms.

All applicants must now provide documentation of their eligibility.

Each must recertify every year.

Plus, a comprehensive subscriber database should be online by the end of the year to prevent duplicate phones in the same household.   

"We are vitally interested in this duplicates database to insure that it is operated here in Alabama.  We want to make sure that only people eligible for Lifeline receive the lifeline discount," Baker stated.

Nationwide, the FCC's reforms have already discovered 1.5 million duplicate phones nationwide.

That crackdown will save ratepayers $180 million dollars a year, which can now go those who the program was designed to help in the first place.

"You have a lot of elderly that are on Lifeline and this may, they are on fixed incomes, this may be the only way they have to talk with doctors, to talk with family members," Baker concluded.

Let's hope the FCC insures the fees we pay provide a true lifeline and not a political football.

Only a fraction of the Universal Service Charge you pay every month funds the free cell phones program.

Here in Alabama only a fifth of the fee goes to the Lifeline program.

The rest funds internet for schools, libraries and rural hospitals.

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