Reality Check: Is the FCC making you pay for someone else's cell phone?

(FOX19) - There is a lot of discussion right now over a little talked about government program.  One that provides free cell phones to low income families.

The program comes from the FCC's Universal Service Fund or USF and it provides 8 billion dollars a year to low income individuals for free cell phones and handsets.

You might have seen the email forward going around that calls this the "Obama phone" claiming the Obama administration has created this program.  But that is not true.

So where does this program come from?  It originated in 1984 during the Reagan administration.  The FCC created the program to assist low income families with having a low cost landline and to update communication services in areas affected by disasters.

The program has grown and continues to do so.  In 2009, the prepaid cell phone provider Tracfone Wireless, Inc., announced the launch of Safelink Wireless in Illinois.   Now, Safelink Wireless and a company called Assurance Wireless provide free cell phones and 250 free minutes a month to low income individuals.

So where does this money for Assurance come from?  Well, it actually is paid into USF by cell phone carriers and it is required to be paid by the FCC.  So where do the carriers get the money?  On your cell phone bill, there is a USF charge.  You pay the surcharge to cover the cost of those phones.

The issue has really come to light because the FCC is now looking to shift that USF money away from land lines and cell phones exclusively and moving toward free broadband internet service for 14 million to 24 million Americans.

About 4.5 billion dollars of the 8 billion dollars from USF would be moved to provide broadband.

Here's what you need to know.

The debate over the USF, whether it is free cell service or free broadband service, really boils down to this.  Are we shifting money from one group to pay for another?

Assurance says their company helps people to get jobs, people who might be out of work but need access to a phone.  Furthermore, they are helping people when they need it.

Most Americans can probably get behind that.  But the hard sell is convincing most Americans that those phones only go to people looking for work, and are only used in ways that pull people up from their struggle.

And that is Reality Check.

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