There is so much about the “Obama Phone” nonsense that tickles my funny bone in odd places. It’s not just that everything conservatives say about it is factually wrong. It also proves that the cherished progressive belief that every policy ever adopted under Reagan and under W were universally unmitigated disasters for the poor and people of color is also wrong. (No, I’m not saying one good policy makes up for a load of bad policies – but honesty demands acknowledging that the Universal Service Fund (USF), of which Lifeline/Linkup is part, started under Reagan and got expanded to wireless by former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Kevin Martin under Bush).
As if this were not ironic enough, the “Obama phone” was approved by the FCC in part to address the massive sudden need for subsidized mobile phones for Katrina victims. In 2005-06, Tracfone distributed 30,000 phones to Katrina victims under the expanded Lifeline program, and raised awareness of the new program through the devastated Gulf Coast region, i.e, the same red state regions now bellyaching about the program. For Progressives, consider that the “Obama phone” was invented in part as a response to Katrina by the President who “didn’t care about black people.”
Even better, it’s an example of how Republicans once upon a time took action to create programs to address the needs of poor people, even when it meant raising rates on the wealthy – a thing neither conservatives or progressives appear willing to acknowledge ever happened. Then, of course, there is the irony that the people most upset about the “Obama Phone,” rural conservatives, are subsidized out of the same program at a much higher rate. For us law geeks, it’s fun to remember that USF started with the FCC exercising its “ancillary authority,” that the D.C. Circuit affirmed this massive expansion of FCC authority, and the Republican Congress would later approve, endorse, and expand this as part of the 1996 Act.
Another irony on the Republican side is that USF is exactly the kind of “teach a man to fish” program for the poor that at least some Republicans say holds the key to winning back the working class vote. Rather than just being a hand out, it puts an important tool for participating in the national economy in the hands of the poor so that they can find and keep jobs and become self-sufficient. Anyone who has applied for a job, or just about anything else these days, recognizes that having a mobile phone so your work can find you (especially if you are a day laborer or some other form of self-employed) is critical to success. Republicans should be arguing that this is exactly the kind of program that gives people tools to improve their lives rather than “creating dependencies,” etc.
Finally, as with so many of these things, legislation to end the “Obama phone” (as proposed by a number of Senators recently) would probably drive a serious spike into provision of rural wireless – and ultimately rural broadband and telephony generally.
So here are my Top Ten Ironies about the “Obama Phone.” Not that I expect actual history to matter much. But for my own amusement, and for the handful of telecom geeks like me that find this stuff entertaining, I elaborate below . . .