FCC begins tracking 'Obama Phone' use

The Federal Communications Commission this week began to compile a database of subscribers to its phone subsidy program.

The database is intended to help the commission crack down on waste and fraud in the $1.85 billion program for the poor, called Lifeline.

Mark Wigfield, an FCC spokesman, told The Hill that the agency began collecting data on Monday on Lifeline subscribers in five states: Arkansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Oklahoma and Washington. The agency plans to expand the database to include information on all subscribers nationwide by the end of March, Wigfield said. 

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The database will help the commission ensure that multiple companies are not receiving subsidies to sign up the same subscribers. 

The FCC first announced that it would create the database as part of a set of reforms to the program in early 2012.

Lifeline has come under attack from conservative lawmakers and activists, who point to it as a prime example of wasteful government handouts. 

The program is often derisively referred to as the "Obama Phone" program, although it began long before Obama took office.

Congress first enacted the Lifeline program in 1985, and the FCC expanded the program to cover cellphone service in 2005 during the George W. Bush administration.

The program pays for phone service, not the phones themselves. But many companies that receive funding through the program offer free and low-cost phones to their subscribers.

The program is funded through fees that the telephone companies pass on to consumers on their monthly bills.

Lifeline gained more attention last year when conservatives seized on a viral video of a woman saying she would vote for President Obama because he gave her a free phone.

Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.) have introduced bills to end the cellphone portion of the program, and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is also a vocal critic.

Leaders of the FCC have defended the importance of the program in helping poor people communicate with family members, apply for jobs and call for help in emergencies. But the agency has acknowledged that the program has been plagued by waste. 

The commission has issued $90 million in fines in recent months to companies accused of collecting fraudulent subsidies through the program.