Phone Giveaway Program Target of US House Hearing Next Week

A U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee plans a hearing next week on a move by some Representatives to rein in the FCC’s controversial Lifeline Program, the one that involved give-a-way cell phones. It’s the program that FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai called the “Obamaphone” program.

The Subcommittee on Communications and Technology will hold the hearing April 13 to consider H.R. 4884, the CURB Lifeline Act proposed by Georgia Rep. Austin Scott. His measure would put a $1.5 billion cap on the fund, prohibiting the use of the subsidy for devices and phasing out the subsidy for voice only service for mobile phones.

Oklahoma Rep. Markwayne Mullin is a member of the full House Committee but does not sit on the subcommittee that will hold the hearing next week.

The Lifeline program, part of the Universal Service Fund, is the one where some wireless carriers in Oklahoma literally handed out free cell phones to families, knowing they, the companies, would get $9.95 per month for each qualifying subscriber and another $34.25 if the subscriber lived in tribal lands. While the FCC rules stated that only one Lifeline phone was allowed per qualifying customer, fraud was discovered that involved more than one free wireless phone for a family.

The Lifeline program was created in 1985 and meant to provide phone service for qualifying low-income consumers. But in 2005, the program discounts were made available on pre-paid wireless service plans.

Part of the Lifeline program is the Universal Service Fund which is the focus of a measure by Rep. Todd Thomsen to strip the auditing powers of the Oklahoma Corporation Commisson over the USF. He called it a move to reform and modernize the Oklahoma Universal Service Fund but Brandy Wreath, Director of the Corporation Commission’s Public Utilities Division disagrees and contends the bill would remove all transparency from the funds. He called it “a pretty scary situation” in a recent interview with OK Energy Today. HB 2616 is still in a legislative committee.