Dear Dr. Levister: Is it true the Obama administration started distributing “Obama Phones” to use “taxpayer money” to give free cell phones to welfare recipients? H.C.
Dear H.C.: No. Low-income households have been eligible for discounted telephone service for more than a decade. Welfare recipients, and others, can receive a free cell phone, but the program is funded by telecom companies, not by taxes, and the president has nothing to do with it.
SafeLink Wireless administrates the program. It is funded through the Universal Service Fund, which is administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company, an independent, not-for-profit corporation set up by the Federal Communications Commission.
The SafeLink program has actually been offering cell phones to low-income households in some states since 2008, not beginning “earlier this year,” as many critics claim. But the program is rooted in a deeper history.
When phone lines were first laid out in the late 19th century, they were not always inter-operable. That is to say the phone service created by one company to serve one town may not have been compatible with the phone service of another company serving a different town nearby. The telecom companies themselves saw the folly in this arrangement, and so in 1913, AT&T committed itself to resolving interconnection problems as part of the “Kingsbury Commitment”.
That common goal of universal service became a goal of universal access to service when Congress passed The Telecommunications Act of 1934. The act created the FCC and also included in its preamble a promise “to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.” This informal practice was codified when the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) was created as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to “ensure all Americans, including low-income consumers and those who live in rural, insular, high cost areas, shall have affordable service and [to] help to connect eligible schools, libraries, and rural health care providers to the global telecommunications network.”
The president has no direct impact on the program. 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.
Wilson Phones, anyone?