This Georgia telephone law would’ve hurt the poor. Now a judge has blocked it.

December 20, 2013

A federal judge has blocked a controversial proposal that would've disproportionately hurt low-income Georgia residents if it had gone through.

In a preliminary injunction handed down this week, Judge Richard Story of the Northern District of Georgia agreed with wireless carriers that forcing poor people to pay $5 a month for phone service that residents of other states get for free would cause irreparable injury. The charge was supposed to go into effect next month, but the ruling will prevent it until a final decision has been made in the case.

The idea, proposed by Georgia's public service commission, was approved by a 3 to 2 vote this year. It affects the 28-year-old federal program known as Lifeline, which grants phone service to the poor at a special subsidy.

Lifeline's been criticized by conservatives as a handout. Many have gone so far as to label the program's free mobile devices as "Obamaphones," implying that the White House was using the phones to buy votes. Doug Everett, the Georgia public service commissioner who's led the charge against Lifeline, has accused the program of massive waste and fraud. In October, Everett said that the state at one point was tracking over a million Lifeline phones, which amounted to more phones than there were poor people. Low-income Georgians were somehow stocking up on devices despite their meager means, he claimed.

But a back-of-the-envelope analysis of Georgia's demographics revealed that the state has many more poor people than Everett seems to think. Instead of a Lifeline penetration rate of 125 percent — as the commissioner suggests — it may in fact be more like a penetration rate of about 30 percent. Moreover, when pressed to describe the impact of the rate hike, Everett admitted he had "no idea" how effective the proposal would be and admitted that people would be hurt by the rule.

Spokespeople from both the public service commission and the wireless industry declined to comment for this story.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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