Phone-y business

Dear Ace: Is it true that the federal government is using Social Security to fund free cellular phone service for welfare recipients?—Not-Expecting-Ever-to-Retire-in-Charlottesville

Factcheck.org addresses your question in a recent post titled “The Obama Phone?” that debunks allegations made in one of those pernicious chain e-mails—you know, the kind with big blocky text in primary colors, lots of weepy hyperbole about America’s “ship sinking,” and which for some reason make your computer run really slow after you read them. According to one such e-mail, a program put into effect “earlier this year” offers free new “Obama phones,” plus approximately 70 minutes of monthly usage, to individuals who qualify to receive welfare benefits.

The truth is that there is such a program—only it doesn’t receive a dime of government or taxpayer funds. It’s called SafeLink, a service offered by Miami-based TracFone Wireless, and has been running since August 2008, at which point Ace is about half sure that Barack Obama was not, in fact, the President of the United States. It’s really a moot point, though, because all of the funding TracFone receives for the program comes from the Universal Service Fund.

And that, while put into place by the Federal Communications Commission during the Clinton administration, subsists exclusively on voluntary contributions from telecommunications companies. Hence, among other things, the “universal service fee” on your phone bill.

You may think this awfully charitable of your service provider, but in truth, enabling new users is simply good business practice. Sure, maybe telecoms shouldn’t be charging existing customers to expand the network. But try mustering much outrage over the “cellular-phone-user’s dollar.”

You can ask Ace yourself. Intrepid investigative reporter Ace Atkins has been chasing readers’ leads for 20 years. If you have a question for Ace, e-mail it to ace@c-ville.com.

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