Georgia’s anti-’Obamaphone’ rule just hurts poor people

October 17, 2013

(philcampbell/Flickr)

The controversy over what critics have derisively called the "Obamaphone" program is back.

In an attempt to take on fraudulent subscribers in the nation's Lifeline program — a service dating to the Reagan administration that gives poor people access to government-subsidized phone lines — Georgia plans to start charging low-income Americans $5 a month for the privilege of getting what residents of other states get for free.

The new rule could wind up punishing more poor people than criminals.

Georgia's state public services commissioner, Doug Everett, justifies the rule by saying that there are more free phones floating about in his state than there are people who are eligible for the Lifeline program. According to his estimates, there were at one point roughly a million Lifeline phones active in Georgia, representing more than one phone per qualifying American.

"A hundred and twenty-five percent of the total number of poor people had Lifeline phones," Everett told me in an interview. Later, he suggested that up to 50 percent of phones distributed under the program may have been fraudulent.

Running the numbers another way, however, yields slightly different results. The eligibility cutoff for Lifeline is 135 percent of the federal poverty line. That description fits nearly 30 percent of Georgia's population. As of the 2010 Census, Georgia had 9.7 million residents, meaning just under 3 million may have been eligible for an Obamaphone. For Everett's math to stand up, the number of eligible poor in Georgia would have to have been around 880,000 — or 733,000 according to Everett's 50-percent estimate.

The Federal Communications Commission has admitted some problems with the program. It recently punished service providers who had signed up customers more than once. It has also established a one-per-household rule as part of a broader set of reforms. And the FCC has identified and terminated 1.5 million duplicate accounts since 2011 — which might sound like a lot, until you consider that those accounts were spread across 30 states. The system as a whole serves some 13 million subscribers nationwide.

Georgia's policy, which goes into effect Jan. 31, will bill customers directly, whether they are law-abiding beneficiaries of the program or not.

In an interview, Everett admitted that "some people will be hurt" by the fees, and he had "no idea" how effective the rule would be.

It also makes the program more costly for phone companies, because the $5 monthly charge won't be enough to cover the new cost of sending out paper bills. In theory, this will make phone companies think twice about who they're signing up.

But it seems like the program is charging a majority of low-income residents what they already can't afford — just to catch a minority of cheaters.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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