Millions Improperly Claimed U.S. Phone Subsidies

Spencer E. Ante, Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2013

The U.S. government spent about $2.2 billion last year to provide phones to low-income Americans, but a Wall Street Journal review of the program shows that a large number of those who received the phones haven’t proved they are eligible to receive them.

The Lifeline program—begun in 1984 to ensure that poor people aren’t cut off from jobs, families and emergency services—is funded by charges that appear on the monthly bills of every landline and wireless-phone customer. Payouts under the program have shot up from $819 million in 2008, as more wireless carriers have persuaded regulators to let them offer the service.

Suspecting that many of the new subscribers were ineligible, the Federal Communications Commission tightened the rules last year and required carriers to verify that existing subscribers were eligible. The agency estimated 15% of users would be weeded out, but far more were dropped.

A review of five top recipients of Lifeline support conducted by the FCC for the Journal showed that 41% of their more than six million subscribers either couldn’t demonstrate their eligibility or didn’t respond to requests for certification.

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The program is open to people who meet federal poverty guidelines or are on food stamps, Medicaid or other assistance programs, and only one Lifeline subscriber is allowed per household.

The program, which is administered by the nonprofit Universal Service Administrative Co., has grown rapidly as wireless carriers persuaded regulators to let people use the program for cellphone service. It pays carriers $9.25 a customer per month toward free or discounted wireless service.

Americans pay an average of $2.50 a month per household to fund a number of subsidized communications programs, including Lifeline.

For the carriers, the program is a chance for them to sign up more subscribers and make a small profit, plus more money if customers go over their small initial allotment and need to buy more minutes or text messages. {snip}

Until last year, FCC rules didn’t require carriers to certify to the FCC that subscribers were eligible. Consumers could self-certify, and in many states documentation wasn’t required.

Carriers said many of the disqualified subscribers simply didn’t reply when asked to prove their eligibility. They also said the FCC rules on self-certification, and the absence of a national database of participants, made it hard to keep ineligible people from signing up.

The FCC said it is investigating allegations that some Lifeline providers violated the rules, though it declined to comment on that probe. {snip}

{snip}

The agency [FCC] pushed through new rules last year, requiring documentation when a Lifeline customer signs up. Consumers also must certify that no one else in their households is using the program. Carriers now have to check a state or federal social-service database to confirm eligibility and must reverify eligibility every year.

{snip}

The FCC said new verification procedures saved nearly $214 million last year, and projected total savings over the next three years would reach $2 billion. Disbursements under the program began to drop in the third quarter after 12 consecutive quarters of increases.

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