District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray has proclaimed the second week in September to be “District of Columbia Lifeline Awareness Week” in an effort to sign up more people for taxpayer-funded phones.
“[T]he Lifeline Assistance programs offer tremendous benefits for eligible consumers in America which help make basic telephone services more affordable and provide a discount to eligible low-income customers,” Gray wrote in his proclamation.
The Public Service Commission of the District of Columbia, an independent agency that regulates D.C. utilities, announced the Lifeline awareness week Thursday.
“The goal of the Public Service Commission is to sign up as many eligible District consumers as possible,” Commissioner Joanne Doddy Fort said in a statement. “We hope that by raising awareness of the Lifeline Program, we can ensure that the District’s Economy II Service Program can reach more consumers. In today’s highly interconnected world, no one should be left out.”
In D.C. the Lifeline Program is known as Economy II Service and under the federal and local program District residents who participate or are eligible for certain public assistance programs are able to receive phone service through Verizon’s Economy II Service as a discounted rate of $3.00 a month or, for seniors, $1.00 a month plus applicable fees.
The Lifeline Program, which is overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), has come under criticism from Republicans recently as the program’s cost has more than doubled, from $822 million in 2008 (when the FCC expanded the program to subsidize cell phones) to $2 billion in 2012, leading some to label the phones provided though the program “Obamaphones.”
“This phone program has expanded far beyond its original intent, and as so many middle class Americans struggle underneath this economy, it is really offensive for Washington to make taxpayers pay for free cell phones for others,” Louisiana Republican Sen. Davis Vitter said in a statement earlier this year introducing a bill with Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe to end the mobile phone service subsidy in the Lifeline Program.
In August, a National Review reporter revealed in an article how she ended up receiving three taxpayer subsidized cell phones, despite being well off and upfront about her ineligibility. According to the author, as recently as June there were 13.8 million active Lifeline subscriptions.
The article spurred Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions to probe the FCC on what it is doing to prevent abuse and excess.
Nevertheless in the District of Columbia, according to Gray’s proclamation “a number of District of Columbia households still do not have access to telephone service.”
The Public Service Commission will be spending next week and the coming year to work with the District Department of the Environment’s Energy Office to engage in outreach to eligible District residents who have not enrolled in the program yet.
“For some, a local phone can be the difference between social connection and complete isolation,” Betty Ann Kane, chairman of the Public Service Commission said.