The Right to a Cellphone

My husband, for several weeks, had been trying to tell me about a program for free wireless service that he heard about on the radio while he was driving around town in the pickup truck.  I did my best to ignore him, for as long as I could, thinking that it was just another gimmick.  I finally paid attention to what he was saying after he put that sweet crease in the side of the truck at the feed store, and I was actually worried as to what extremes he would go to get me to listen.  I asked him for the details and did a little search on the web.  Maybe I’m late to this rodeo, but I was astounded by my own ignorance regarding something that has been around for a very long time, and what I,  just as ignorantly, have been underwriting for just as long.

In 1985, the FCC implemented a program known as the Lifeline Assistance Program.  It’s purpose, originally was to offer discounted land-line service for low-income Americans.  In order to qualify, the guidelines required that the income for a family of four could not exceed $30,000.  It was a good program, with noble beginnings, but, like most things run by the government, it turned into a whole different beast.

In 1997, the FCC expanded the service and the Universal Service Order began, and as an offshoot, so did the Linkup program.  By more than just coincidence, the Statistical Abstract which collects information from the Census Bureau, reflected that wireless services in the United States had approximately 55 million customers.  Although the Census Bureau will swear up and down that they do not share their information with anyone, those clever telecommunications folks became aware of these numbers and saw some real opportunities.

The Universal Service program is one in which wireless companies are reimbursed for the costs of providing service to low income residents.  This subsidy is paid for by the Universal Service fee which is included in the bills of everyone who subscribes to a land-line service, wireless service or both.   If you are anything like me, and can’t figure out what half of those charges, fees and taxes are about, well, that explains one of them.

The lack of oversight, combined with the profits being realized, made this program ripe for abuse.  No one was paying attention until Senator Claire McCaskill (D – MO) received an invitation to signup for the program.  This particular invitation came from one of the subsidiaries of America Movil,  one of the largest wireless providers in Latin America, the United States and the Caribbean.  It is also owned by a man who has been named by Forbes magazine as the richest in the world, Carlos Slim.  The company promised her up to 250 free minutes per month, and it also said that she only had to check a few boxes to receive the service.  I took a look at the application and there isn’t very much to fill in.  Simply check what type of government assistance you receive and verify that you, or any of you family, are not already receiving Lifeline from any other provider.  Now you fill in some personal information,  pick what plan you want, and if the particular provider finds you meet the requirements, your cellphone will be in the mail.

The problem with the program reared its’ ugly head by accident – Senator McCaskill just happens to head a subcommittee – under the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee – which is Contracting Oversight.   That was a lucky thing for us – not so much for the wireless industry.   Her investigation into the program uncovered a number of interesting details.  It seems, while nobody was watching, that the number of these subsidized wireless accounts had grown to an astonishing 12.5 million, and that some of the account holders had more than two of them to their names – so much for the honor system and checking those boxes.   The cost of the program had risen from $772 million in 2008 to $1.6 billion in 2011.

The good senator has decided that, perhaps, some changes needed to be made, particularly given the recent rhetoric about government’s wasteful spending and has now issued the Universal Service Reform Order.  These changes, in part, will include:

  • The creation of a National Lifeline Accountability Database. This database will keep a record of all customers of the Lifeline Program, so that customers cannot apply under separate carriers to obtain additional phones.
  • The creation of eligibility databases with data supplied from federal benefit programs. This database will allow the wireless companies operating under the Lifeline program to automatically determine initial and ongoing eligibility of their customers. Previously, customers in some states were told to certify annually whether they were still eligible for the program.
  • Establishing and enforcing a one-per-household rule. This will not apply to separate families living at the same address. Customers with more than one account will be subject to civil and/or criminal penalties.
  • Companies will also be required to close the accounts of Lifeline customers which have been inactive for 60 days.

Senator McCaskill and her fellow subcommittee members are claiming savings of up to $33 million since they began their investigation.  They are projecting that further oversight, together with full implementation of the suggested changes will reduce costs to the program by $200 million in 2012 and $2 billion over the next three 3 years.   Before we get our hopes up, however, cable companies are now offering subsidized broadband for low income families.  I guess I have had my own light bulb moment as to why Atlantic Broadband has been working 7 days a week, stringing cable out here and sticking fliers in  front doors, offering all sorts of discounted bundles.  It looks like those savings have already found a new home, and maybe that wireless invitation wasn’t a coincidence after all.

I’m going to look at the rest of my utility bills.  Then, maybe, I’ll do some reading – by candlelight.


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19 Responses to The Right to a Cellphone

  1. PussyGalore says:

    “I did my best to ignore him, for as long as I could, thinking that it was just another gimmick”………you are a very funny lady.

  2. Viewer 5 says:

    Well… I see this from a different perspective, in that oversight is not going to lower my Universal Service Fee any more than AT&T is going to remove the (illegal) Federal Tax (that they are supposed to pay, and pass on to me) on my cellphone bill. There was a class action case in New York about the Federal Tax, and “the people” won. No other state, to my knowledge, has picked up on it. I kind of did a drive-by google just now, and it seems that class action suits are no longer “allowed” to be brought against cell phone service providers. Which doesn’t surprise me, b/c the cell phone lobbyists are so strong in FL that we are still allowed to drive (haphazardly) and talk on the phone here.

    On a personal note, I don’t have a problem with tax dollars going to “people” or “entities” or whatever. Never had. Anyone cheating the system, to me, has their own crap to deal with and that’s their problem, not mine. I was on welfare for six months in nyc in 1996 (it was not the walk in the park everyone thinks it is – job fairs, job applications at airports 45 minutes away, all for 398.00 a month and 105 in food stamps… but it HELPED. I was also on unemployment in 1998 in nyc, and again in 2006 in nyc – a system I’ve been paying into since my first crappy job at McDonald’s at 15. Personally, I just don’t care. My family has been incredibly, incredibly lucky financially, and the perspective we (all) have about income tax is PAY. (Don’t get me started on creating trusts to avoid inheritance tax, though… we’re not *that* benevolent!)

    It might be way off topic, but:
    This graphic artist has been tracking where tax dollars go for a couple of years. It takes a while to load, but I think it might behoove anyone who’s really interested in seeing where the money goes, as opposed to making assumptions about percentages. It’s awfully cute, and is based on the federal budget.

    I just can’t get upset about people who choose to abuse the system; that’s just my personal feeling. There are thousands of workers (here in Florida) with fake social security numbers who pay into a system that will never provide for them in an income tax return, let alone for their retirement. You can argue that they should become citizens as much as you want… but in the present tense, it does not take away from the fact they are still paying into “the system.” It’s a cheat that hurts them in the longrun.

    The bottom line for me, is… people choose to live their lives within the bounds of morality or legality to the extent that they find comfortable. It’s no sweat off my back, and doesn’t effect the amount I pay in taxes AT ALL. If I truly believe in “freedom” then I must believe that it’s the individual’s right and responsibility to himself and the country he lives in, however and whenever he arrived here. It doesn’t effect me on a personal or financial level. And it never will. My taxes don’t go “up” because people take advantage of the system. The only disparity in them “going up” has been the city and state I choose to live in.

  3. I’m positive that’s just a teeny-tiny tip of the iceberg as far as any program the Government oversees is concerned. Congress is famous for starting programs designed to help the less fortunate. The problem is there is no thought as to how these programs are going to be implemented, maintained, or paid for for that matter. They just pass the bill and then burden some entity of the system to handle it when they are understaffed and ill-equipped to do so. If any company wants to train their employees on how NOT to run a company, all they have to do is use the bureaucratic quagmire that is Washington, DC as an example. Being a Federal employee for 36 years, I’ve seen many instances of lamebrained “new and improved programs” come out of “headquarters” and had to witness the squandering of resources first hand and there was nothing I could do about it. It got so bad towards the end that I retired as soon as I was eliglble to do so. So sad that it took a flukey thing like a senator getting an offer of free cell phone service in the mail for this to get noticed. The agencies I worked for used to get inspected and audited every couple of years. What happened here? I could go on and on, but I don’t want my BP to spiral out of control this morning.

    • I think you’ve wrapped up the problem in a very well-stated nutshell.
      The road to hell is paved with (government’s) good intentions.

    • catnapper says:

      Totally agree with your synopsis. There are so many agencies to oversee one another and committees that it is mind-numbing. Waste is as waste does. I have a dificult time doing the right thing and continually being penalized because some well-meaning congressperson decided as a taxpayer that I should pay more for somone else to have the same standard of living without earning it. The best example is the lottery winner in Michigan getting food stamps after winning it and owning 2 homes. She says that she is entitled to it. There is always abuse but this is ridiculous. I guess the food stamps will stop now that she has been all over TV bragging about it.
      Since when should everyone have a cell phone whether they can afford it or not? Heck I grew up when they did not exist and managed quite well. This is the type of liberal politics that I take issue with-it goes too far.
      I certainly believe in helping people out that need it. The problem for me is that the govt wants to ensure we all have the same outcome given certain opportunities and it’s not realistic.

      • Viewer 5 says:

        hey cat – you might be happy to know that in my hometown, they are cracking down on medicare fraud, and gov’t assistance fraud. it just hit the papers this morning. the sheriff’s office says this is only phase one, and they are going to keep going. one of the offenders faces up to (5) years in jail.

        we are on opposite sides of most issues, i suspect, but i understand your perspective. i kind of figure, if people want to break the law (as above) and risk getting caught, i’m going to wind up paying for their trial and jail time anyway. ;D florida is, like, i think: the capital of medicare fraud. our governor was busted for the worst (65 billion) medicare rip-off in history and still got elected. as governor!!!

        i remember going to one of his clinics (solantic) just to have a bandage changed. it was on my back, and i couldn’t reach it. anyway, they charged me 50.00, they charged my insurance i-don’t-know-how-much. later, when i switched insurance companies (i am a single-payer) they asked me if i was ever sick with colds or flu and did i go to the doctor. i said “no.” they (aetna, my new insurer) told me i was lying b/c there was a record of me AT SOLANTIC being treated for the flu. they falsified my record to get more from my insurance. i reported them. i’m sure humana (my old insurer) could have cared less. and this is AFTER that guy got elected! they’re still doing it!

        pardon lack of caps. long day.

        • catnapper says:

          I hear ya’. There will always be “Cheaters” in this world. My complaint has more to do with the culture of the country moving toward increasing entitlement freebies. I don’t believe we all should have the same things ” No matter who pays for it mentality.” I am against a govt telling me how they know best how to spend my money when they are actively contributing to a record high debt for the country. If I can’t afford a cell phone-I don’t get one. So why should I help pay for other people’s phone? I contend that the more govt we have in our lives =less freedom and choices. It’s gradual and slow but happening.

          • Viewer 5 says:

            Hi cat-
            Come to think of it, I remember asking what the universal service fee was. The person told me that it was to help people get phones who didn’t have them. Of course, being *me* – I didn’t care. Ha! When I was a kid, some people had telephones (landlines) that were maybe 5 dollars a month, instead of the 20 or 25 that my parents paid. There was no long distance on their phones, and they had another restriction (can’t remember what that was.) That was before Ma Bell was broken up.

            I would submit that with people getting cellphones w/ different companies, etc. it’s hard to track. The cellphone goes with the person as they travel; it doesn’t stay at “home.” I wonder if they have restrictions on the type of phones they can have; maybe they get the older models that the cellphone co. doesn’t “sell” anymore. They probably have no texting or internet. But… maybe not!!!

            As to entitlements, I think it’s human nature (NOT that I agree with it) that people find a way to game the system, cheat, and screw people over. They rationalize that it doesn’t hurt anyone, or that ‘everyone’ is doing it, or that (the person they’re “grifting”) has ENOUGH and it won’t HURT them, ie: the contractor who overcharges the rich lady for the same work he did for the young couple.

            All this is to say that conceptually (here’s where I go WAY off track… but bear w/ me) I believe in every man for himself, but it doesn’t work. People break, systems created to help those in need (either temporarily or permanently) are taken advantage of by some, while others who are more “deserving” are left out. Philosophically, I believe in communism(!) but that SURE as hell doesn’t work! I just try and put myself in my little bubble where everyone has to answer to their own conscience. There is so much corruption everywhere, and I think it’s more a reflection of humanity than anything else. 😦

  4. windycitywondering1 says:

    Someone will always figure out a way to game the system – like the parents who drive a Cadillac and Lexus but get tuition reductions and free lunches for their kids. We usually only hear about the worst case scenerios of abuse, but we all know it happens on a regular basis. What bothers me is that those individuals take away from those who truly need it and give people a reason not to support needed programs! I am thankful for what I have and give back to my community when the opportunities present themselves and just shake my head in amazement when I hear about the “gamers” bragging about getting over on the system.

    • Viewer 5 says:

      I have a friend whose mother decided to quit the democratic party when all of her friends were falsifying addresses so their children could go to the “better” middle school. Of course, this was thirty years ago(!) but that really, really got to her; she was sending her kids to the “bad” school b/c that was what you were supposed to do. And picking them up b/c the buses after school were not that safe to ride, apparently.

      There is a lot more to the story – I think it had more to do with her friends considering themselves exceptions to the rule, and as a Canadian whose husband had worked damned hard for citizenship and to create a business in our community (that eventually employed tens of thousands – construction) the whole thing just made her sick. She had never considered herself entitled to anything other than what the country she had grown to love told her she should have. It changed her perspective. Permanently.

      • klmh says:

        My republican friends don’t have to lie about their addresses. They send their kids to private schools, or move to a district that have better schools.
        All of us want a better education for our children. Isn’t it sad that the poorer the district, the poorer the school in most cases?
        Thought this might fit into this subject as well… Last year, the only grade school left in the poorer part of our town was quickly closed, with only 5 days notice to the children’s parents and teachers. This particular school had better scoring on tests than two of the wealthier schools, but they shut it down. Now, the parents without a car are up a creek because they can’t transport their children to advanced college classes or other events that had been bussed.
        Doesn’t seem fair to me but it certainly doesn’t seem fair to the hard working parents that are trying to make their children’s lives better thru education and its other additional outside enhancements.

        • Viewer 5 says:

          Egad. The Republican lady – that was more like 35 years ago. None of her kids went to private schools; I just don’t think it entered her conscience. My friend was the youngest. Now all of her grandkids are going to super-elite schools from pre-school through high school. Imagine that!

          It’s NOT fair that the school got closed, and with it extra-curricular activities previously sponsored by the city. Not to be a Pollyanna, (not tooooo much, anyway!) but I wonder if the extended community can band together to help these children. Meaning, if you have a little fair at City Hall and find out who needs to be driven where, and why. Contact the local paper, and get some publicity for this in terms of a solution. See how much it would cost to get these kids to their programs via hired bus or service. Get attention on it. People will feel guilty (yay!) and create bake sales or whatever. Bug the rich parents to contribute 100.00/per school year, or whatever. Give them a chance to pretend they’re actually interested in helping other kids who are not their own.

          It’s a PR issue… this can be taken advantage of to great response, if handled properly. Most people “give” as a tax break, or to make themselves look good in the community. Contact businesses who sponsor those little league baseball teams and soccer leagues. Tell them they have a chance to help with education as well.

          it’s a budget issue, and can be handled by raising the proper amount of money. Find some rich lady to head up the charity drive. Have the kids who are being helped tutor younger kids at the library once a month. This is a great opportunity for a community to band together and take care of its own.

          • klmh says:

            We now have a public transportation system set in place. One minivan to transport people for 25 cents/ride, if they can donate. This is basically set up for the elderly though.
            There isn’t enough money to go around, and I would imagine that’s the way it is in most small towns. Believe it or not, ours is an affluent community.
            I understand your enthusiasm about getting the community together, but the vast majority of the people hit by the closure of the school work one or two jobs and are barely making ends meet, let alone having the time to do something as time consuming as you suggest. Realistically, the wealthy want the best for their children too, and as the town is shrinking in student numbers, the hit has to be taken and its the poor or less affluent that suffer.
            Rich ladies here support their own schools and scholarships. This is not a backward town and many volunteer for boys and girls clubs, food programs, free clinics, etc.
            Thats another thing that gripes my ass. How can a person who makes 400k+/yr accept a full ride scholarship for their child, when the need is so great elsewhere? It happens all the time, and I know of at least 6 people who have done this.
            I am not a bleeding heart, just simply realize that if someone is going to get hit in a down economy, it will be the poor and less affluent that will be the hardest hit.

          • klmh says:

            I forgot to mention that every child’s needs cannot be met by anything other than adequate transportation to community college classes and functions. Its not feasible and transporting a student alone, thats not mine, nuhuh. Too many child abuse accusations, and liabilities…

  5. Working for the government is stressful. You see all kinds of stupidity, cronyism, and waste. A family member worked for many years in the gov’t in Washington, DC & eventually got so disgusted they took a job in private industry. You know all those big corporations with offices ringing DC? They aren’t called “Beltway Bandits” for nothing.

    Every time gov’t comes up with a plan to “do the right thing” it doesn’t take long before that “benefit” is hijacked by crooks. Then the gov’t needs more people to “audit” or “watch” over the program. Why not just pull the plug on it? Remember when we didn’t have cell phones? People managed just fine.

    Interesting that in 2011, we very likely could have qualified for food stamps, welfare, free lunches, a cell phone or 2, & and all kinds of goodies. We had income of less than $28,000 (mostly from my investing efforts) here in NJ. That’s defined as “below the poverty line” in NJ. Instead of jumping on the freebies, we are living off of savings. I’m too proud to “cash in.” If I wanted social security disability, I’m sure that I would qualify with my health issues. However, I do not feel disabled, & would have to be homeless, on the streets in raggedy clothes before my sense of pride would allow me to partake of any state or federal freebies. Hopefully someone in my family would take me in before that!

    Off to do something to lower my blood pressure now.

  6. Designdiva says:

    Seeing how the topic is CELL PHONES… I just copied and pasted ths whole email a good buddy of mine sent me the other day..Kinda cute

    The story below is written by an economist I have heard speak a few times. I subscribe to an electronic newsletter he edits 5 days a week. He often writes about the different things that happen to him as he travels around the globe. I just had to share the one from today with you. – WM

    What You See on TV is Not Real

    I know this comes as a shock but I have discovered this anew. I managed to leave my phone at home during one of my recent travels and did not want to be rendered incommunicado for the duration so I got the bright idea of purchasing one of those “burn” phones you see depicted on all the best crime dramas. In these shows some guy grabs the phone off the shelf; tears open the package and is instantly hooked up in a manner that defies all efforts of law enforcement to track him. I must not know where to find that kind of phone. I went to a Walgreens and bought a cheap phone and proceeded to sit in the car to fire it up. I was told that I needed to activate it from another phone or via the Internet so I decided to get to my destination and try it again.

    Once I was hooked up to the Internet I was asked for a detailed list of personal data – everything from address to home phone and especially my credit card as the phone only came with about eight minutes of call time. So, if I am a criminal mastermind I have just given my address, phone number, credit card data, name of my first pet, listed the state capitals in reverse order of when they came into the union and I am still not quite ready. The sucker needs to be charged before it works. I can just see the kidnapper giving instructions on where to make the drop and the phone beeps three times and drops the call. It makes one a very uncool bad guy to have to call back and mumble something about a low battery.

    The next time I see some show where the guy is all over his burn phone seconds after acquiring it I am going to laugh. Next you will be telling me that people can’t really drive like than in crowded urban areas like Chicago and New York. – Dr. Chris Kuehl

  7. tuzentswurth says:

    A well known telecommunications giant has huge political clout in my home state, tax breaks galore from the governor. I was aware of the Federal Universal Service Fee and I see the ads beckoning all to get their free phone and for very small amounts of money, they can ‘up’ their plan to have a better plan than I have. I have wondered why nobody gets all fired up about this ‘socialist cell phone’ business. I don’t consider cell phones to be a necessity of life. This is another instance of lobby money from corporations controlling the government. Now our tax dollars pay the telecommunication giants even more money! This just slips under the radar of people who only pay attention to what the media tells them to get fired up over. The health insurance companies want us fired up about ‘socialized medicine’ and so does Congress. The health insurance companies fund their campaigns after all.

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