Who Started the Obama Phone?

“Who started the Obama Phone?” is one of the most frequently asked questions about the Lifeline program.

That growth, of course, is partially related to the financial meltdown, the subsequent recession, and lingering economic issues. The number of Americans eligible for the program has grown dramatically recent years and the program has expanded to meet that demand.

But perhaps we should look back at a little history to determine the real architect of the free phone program. A timeline of the program’s history makes it difficult to pinpoint an exact date the program was created and blurs the possibility of assigning credit or blame (depending on your opinion of the program).

President Obama?

It’s an undisputed fact that Safelink Wireless offered the first free government cell phone in Tennessee in 2008, but don’t let the year confuse you. Barack Obama was not elected President until November of that year, but that first free government cell phone was given out three months earlier during the Bush administration.

President Clinton?

Some authorities go back even further and say the Obama Phone program can trace its roots back to the Clinton administration because that’s when the Federal Communications Commission authorized a subsidy for landline telephones as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The Act authorized subsidized landline telephones for America’s needy and it was approved by both houses of Congress and signed into law by President Clinton.

President Reagan?

Nevertheless, some authorities dispute that interpretation and believe credit for the Obama Phone program should go back even further to 1984 when Ronald Reagan was President, because it was then that the Federal Communications Commission created the original Lifeline Assistance program (technically, Lifeline Assistance is the official name of the Obama Phone program).

President Roosevelt?

But even that does not go back far enough for some industry leaders who say the origin of the Obama Phone program goes all the way back to 1934. During President Franklin Roosevelt’s first administration, Congress created the Federal Communications Commission and promised “to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, a rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.” Today’s Lifeline Assistance program is funded through a Universal Service Fund that evolved from that concept.

President Wilson?

And believe it or not, there are a few telecommunications experts insist that the Obama Phone program began all the way back in the early 20th century during the Woodrow Wilson administration. Their logic? When the first telephone companies were founded, the phone service offered by one company in one town was often incompatible with the phone service offered by another company in another town. That situation created technical chaos in the budding telephone industry.

The solution? In 1913 the Woodrow Wilson administration gave AT&T a monopoly over phone service, which allowed them to set nationwide technology standards and determine the evolution of the nation’s future telephone system.

What’s not in dispute? The program helps people.

Obviously, the roots of the Obama Phone program are in dispute. What’s not in dispute is that the program has grown tremendously during President Obama’s administration — nearly 20 million low income Americans are already benefiting from the program.

Some experts believe that as many as 35% of all Americans may be qualified for the free phones and that the program will continue to grow under subsequent presidents even as it retains the Obama’s name on it.