Life, liberty and . . . free cellphone service? The questionable Obamaphone program is still plagued by waste, fraud and abuse.
Yet another U.S. Government Accountability Office audit has found widespread waste in the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program, which offers free or reduced-price phone and Internet service for lowincome beneficiaries.
Services are supposed to be limited to one participant per household for those with incomes of no more than 135 percent of the federal poverty line, or who receive benefits under a means-tested welfare program such as Medicaid, federal housing assistance (Section 8) or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps). The program is funded by a Universal Service Fund tax, which is generally passed on to landline and wireless consumers and itemized on their bills.
The Lifeline program was initially established in 1985 during the Reagan administration, but grew significantly after prepaid wireless carriers began offering wireless Lifeline service in 2008, along with free cellphones, prompting it to be dubbed the “Obamaphone” program. A lack of accountability led to substantial fraud and abuse, as those who should have been eligible were signed up and many received multiple free phones. Enrollment skyrocketed, from 6.8 million households in 2008 to 18.1 million in 2012, and the cost of the program rose 167 percent during that time, from $820 million to $2.2 billion.
And waste, fraud and abuse continue to be major problems for the troubled program. The GAO study found that the FCC was unable to confirm the eligibility of 36 percent of the 3.5 million Lifeline accounts the GAO reviewed. Thousands of accounts belonged to either fake or dead people, costing taxpayers more than $100 million in improper payments, the study concluded.
Broadband service, and telecommunications services generally, may be a valuable service, but it is hardly an unalienable right protected by the Constitution.