Popular opposition to the “Lifeline” program, colloquially known since last year as the “Obamaphone” program, appears to be growing. Tracfone Wireless, the company that most benefits from the government subsidy, is now advertising on inside-the-beltway news websites in an effort to save it.
“Obamaphone? Obamaphone?” a flashing banner ad running interchangeably with other ads at the top of Politico’s website reads. “Think again. Lifeline. Created by Reagan.”
“Impact on the deficit? Zero,” another flashing slide argues.
The banner ad takes those who click on it to LifelineFacts.com, an advertising website run by TracFone. “TracFone has worked together with the FCC to adopt tough new reforms to protect the integrity of the Lifeline program,” the bottom of the website reads. “We support ongoing efforts to minimize fraud and ensure that benefits only go to those who qualify and truly need the assistance.”
The Lifeline program was started by Ronald Reagan in the 1980’s but has since grown exponentially. In 2008, it was expanded to allow benefit recipients to use the subsidy for wireless cell phones. During the last election cycle, Drudge Report popularized the term “Obamaphone” after Obama campaign supporters published online videos in which they praised Obama for giving them free cell phones, paid for by U.S. taxpayers.
Rep. Tim Griffin (R-AR) has launched an effort to repeal the “Obamaphone” program with specific pieces of legislation. “I’ve heard from many Arkansans about one wasteful Washington program that’s riddled with instances of abuse,” Griffin said on a special part of his congressional website devoted to ending the expansion of the program and return it to its original intent under Reagan.
It’s a government-run, taxpayer-funded program that’s running wild and costing more and more. The evidence is stacking up: dead people are receiving free cell phones in the mail, eligible and ineligible individuals are obtaining more than one, and electronic kiosks have been stationed in convenience stores to spread the word about this “free” opportunity. The truth is, though, that taxpayers are footing the bill. The program is called Lifeline, but in reality it’s turned into Uncle Sam’s Unlimited Plan. My bill returns the Lifeline program back to its original structure by ending federal subsidies for free cell phone services. This growing government cell phone program is costing American consumers and taxpayers, and my bill puts an end to it.
TracFone’s LifelineFacts.com argues that since George W. Bush’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the wireless cellular expansion of the lifeline program in 2008, further expansion under Obama is acceptable. “Lifeline wireless service has been around for a number of years, dating back to President George W. Bush’s Administration, not President Obama’s,” TracFone’s LifelineFacts.com reads.
In 2008, the FCC approved the first free wireless Lifeline. The FCC’s decision to allow Lifeline to offer a free wireless option was an important recognition of the central role that the cell phone plays in modern day life in America. A growing number of households are giving up their landlines and moving entirely into wireless service. This trend is likely to be more prevalent in low-income communities. Wireless phone service provides users with greater flexibility to stay connected to their communities.
TracFone is making millions per year off the government subsidy. “Tracfone now has more than has more than 4 million subscribers in its Lifeline program, called SafeLink, and collected $452 million last year from the program’s subsidies,” Jordan Malter wrote on Oct. 26, 2012 for CNN Money. “That’s twice what it took in two years ago, and far more than any other provider. (The runners-up, AT&T and Sprint each collected around $274 million.)”
Griffin continues to garner more and more cosponsors for his bill to scale back the program’s wireless expansion, with Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and Richard Hudson (R-NC) signing on last week to bring the total number of cosponsors up to 60.