What's All This Chatter About A Free "Obama Phone?"

Unless you listen to conservative talk radio, you might not have heard of the so-called "Obama Phone." (And no, it's not a direct line to the President.)

That's likely because there's no such thing as an  “Obama Phone," per se. Instead, "Obama Phone" is a term used both by proponents and opponents of the cellular version of the FCC's "Lifeline" program, which provides eligible recipients with a government-subsidized, low-cost or even free telephone service. The FCC refers to the program as: "Lifeline: Affordable Telephone Service for Income-Eligible Consumers" though frequently uses only the world "Lifeline."

The Lifeline Program

As part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the FCC formally authorized the Lifeline program to help defray the cost of landline phones. In 2008 - as cell phones became more capable, popular and affordable - the Lifeline program was extended to cell phones. Carriers that work with the Lifeline typically provide a cellular feature phone and 250 monthly minutes of airtime.  

While the specifics of the phones offered vary by carrier, the FCC says the typical subsidy averages $9.25 per month, but could cover the entire cost in some instances. 

Though the extension to Lifeline took place under President Bush, just prior to the election of Barack Obama, the program has grown during Obama's Presidency, rising from $819 million in 2008 to $2.2 billion in 2012.

While subsidized landlines for poor and rural dwellers was non-controversial for years, in today's highly charged partisan political environment, subsidizing cell phones in particular has become a right-wing talking point as an example of government waste and misplaced priorities. 

Approximately 8 - 10 million people have signed up for the Lifeline program - mostly for landline subisidies. The revenues to support the program come via the “Universal Service Fund” which receives its funding through a fee levied by telecom carriers on landlines and cell phones - not  from taxes. This fee is typically a few dollars per month, and was likewise codified as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. 

To be considered eligible to receive Lifeline subsidies, an applicant must have an income at or below 135-150% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, depending upon the state they live in, or already be on some form of public assistance. This could include Medicaid, food stamps or public housing. Only one Lifeline service per household is allowed, either a landline or a wireless device. The complete guidelines are available via the FCC.

While the Lifeline program may sound innocuous to many, to some conservatives it's become a cause celebre, making the very name "Obama Phone" the stuff of urban lore. Angry emails - often confused with a dose of misinformation - about the Obama Phone have circulated across the Internet, such as the one below:

FW: Obamaphone… no joke!!
I had a former employee call me earlier today inquiring about a job, and at the end of the conversation he gave me his phone number. I asked the former employee if this was a new cell phone number and he told me yes this was his “Obama phone.” I asked him what an “Obama phone” was and he went on to say that welfare recipients are now eligible to receive (1) a FREE new phone and (2) approx 70 minutes of FREE minutes every month. I was a little skeptical so I Googled it and low and behold he was telling the truth. TAX PAYER MONEY IS BEING REDISTRIBUTED TO WELFARE RECIPIENTS FOR FREE CELL PHONES. This program was started earlier this year. Enough is enough, the ship is sinking and it’s sinking fast. The very foundations that this country was built on are being shaken. The age old concepts of God, family, and hard work have flown out the window and are being replaced with “Hope and Change” and “Change we can believe in.”

During the 2012 Presidential election, this video helped the term go viral.

 

Both Sides Call It The Obama Phone

Despite the negative connotations tied to the program, do not expect the “Obama Phone” moniker to die. The term is also used by organizations promoting the Lifeline service.

A website, literally, ObamaPhone.net, helps potential recipients determine if they are eligible for an “Obama Phone" and if so, how they can get a device. The site is operated by the Free Government Cell Phone Program, whose website contains multiple direct links to the carriers that provide the phones and service to end user, including SafeLink Wireless, part of Tracfone, and Assurance, a subsidiary of Virgin Mobile USA.

Note: ReadWrite has reached out to both the ObamaPhone and Free Government Cellphones sites. Both have yet to respond. The phone number provided on the Free Government Cellphones site is a non-working number. 

Top image courtesy of the White House.