The number of Florida households receiving free or discounted phones through the Lifeline Assistance program has dropped significantly — from a high of 1.04 million households in 2012, to 957,792 in 2013, to 833,162 in 2014. Hard as it may be to believe, that still represents one out of ten households in the state.
“Participation rates continue to prove that Lifeline is an important program for Florida families,” said PSC Chairman Art Graham told the Palm Beach Post. “Lifeline provides the assistance many need to afford phone service, an everyday necessity to connect with family, friends, doctors, and employers. The program also promotes public safety by providing access to 911.”
Add up all the subsidies and it comes to a total of $100 million. In other words, Lifeline Assistance, the free and discounted government cell phone program, isn’t exactly free.
What caused this dramatic 13% decrease in the number of Lifeline Assistance customers? The Federal Communications Commission says fewer subscribers re-certified that they were still eligible for the program, and attributes its own efforts to fight fraud, waste and abuse in the program.
Lifeline Assistance customers are restricted to one free government cell phone per household and must now re-certify every twelve months that they are still eligible, or one discounted home phone line. Clearly, the FCC’s efforts have gone a long way toward eliminating fraudsters who publicly bragged about having five, ten, even twenty free government cell phones.
The popular free government cell phone program proved to be a big hit with the nation’s neediest people. As a result, the number of companies offering the service and the number of customers benefiting from it ballooned and the program’s budget skyrocketed from $800 million in 2005, when the first free government cell phone was handed out in Tennessee to an almost unimaginable $2 billion in 2012.
For example, twenty-one Lifeline Assistance companies offer the popular program just in Florida. SafeLink Wireless, the industry leader and company that handed out that first free government cell phone in Tennessee, serves more than 450,000 Floridians.
But that’s not to say that everything has been smooth-going for Safelink. Early last year the company was accused of telling veterans that they qualified for free government cell phones strictly because they were veterans. Unfortunately, that is not legal because veteran status is not a qualifying factor. In a similar vein, SafeLink agents were accused of telling a law enforcement officer, a firefighter, and a state employee that they were eligible for benefits for which they did not qualify.
SafeLink attributed the problems to one rogue agent who was later fired for signing up ineligible customers. To the company’s credit, it is compensating those ineligible customers by allowing them to keep their cell phones and giving them free minutes. Then Safelink wrote out a check for $11 million to reimburse the government for the money it had received on the ineligible accounts.
In the words of William Shakespeare, all’s well that ends well. The government got its money back, fraud was eliminated, Safelink acted as a responsible corporate citizen, and many of the 833,162 Floridians on Lifeline Assistance are still using their free government cell phones to apply for jobs, to keep in touch with friends and family, and to contact medical professionals.
A happy ending indeed.
h/t: Palm Beach Post