Q. In a recent News-Democrat Sound-Off, a reader complained about Lifeline, a federal program that subsidizes phone service for the poor. This was part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and, ultimately, the Universal Service Fund, which we now all pay into through fees on our phone bills. I don't mind helping the poor, but audits have shown that this program, which has grown from $772 million in 2008 to $2.2 billion last year, is rife with fraud. Why was the 1996 Telecommunications Act passed? Who sponsored it? Why are these "free" phones given out? Is anything being done about the fraud?
-- D.E., of Fairview Heights
A. It sounds as though you're thinking, hmmm, free phones for the poor. Must have been another one of those redistribute-the-wealth ideas from some wild-eyed liberal.
Not even close. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was written and introduced by Larry Pressler, a Republican from South Dakota who, in November 1978, was the first Vietnam veteran elected to the U.S. Senate.
His goal was to deliver the first major overhaul of telecommunications law since the Communications Act of 1934. You have to remember that way back then AT&T (also affectionately known as "Ma Bell") was about the only game in town, so the 1934 law created the Federal Communications Commission to regulate such a telephone monopoly.
But by 1996, the landscape had changed radically. Revolutionary new forms of communications were emerging -- cellphones, cable and satellite TV, fiberoptics, the Internet, etc. New technologies were dramatically cutting the costs of transmission, switching and processing. Trouble was, consumers and potential new entrepreneurs weren't reaping the benefit. Competition was being stifled because of the antique regulations from 1934 designed to protect us from monopolies like Bell.
So, simply put, the primary thrust of the 1996 Telecommunications Law was to get the government off the back of the telecommunications industry and let anyone enter any communications business. The jump in competition would drive down consumer cost and foster innovation, backers said.
But just as education has its no-child-left-behind mandates, backers of the 1996 law wanted all Americans to share in this brave, new world of telecommunications. It's pretty hard to function in society if you don't have access to at least a phone. So, the law states that all telecommunications companies should contribute to universal service in some "equitable and nondiscriminatory" manner.
As part of this mandate, the FCC in 1997 created the Universal Service Fund. From the fees collected from your phone bill, for example, the fund assists the poor with installation costs through Link-Up America and discounts on phone service through Lifeline.
But that's only part of the program. The Universal Service Fund also subsidizes tele-medicine by providing equipment and Internet access for videoconferencing between rural hospitals and metropolitan medical centers. In addition, a program known as E-Rate subsidizes Internet access, infrastructure and maintenance in schools and libraries.
Sadly, as that Sound-Off caller pointed out, the minute you start a new benefit, you're going to have dishonest people try to take advantage. But the caller failed to point out that on Jan. 31, 2012, the FCC issued a new order designed to root out waste and fraud in the Lifeline program.
In part, the order establishes databases that will prevent people from acquiring subsidies from several companies or multiple subsidies from one company. In addition, the order establishes a set budget along with "clearer goals and metrics."
The FCC expects the changes will save up to $600 million per year. These savings will help further the FCC's effort to provide broadband service to the poor; currently, only about 40 percent of the nation's low-income households use broadband. But whether these changes work, only time will tell.
For the record, Pressler's bill passed the House 414-16 and the Senate 91-5. Of the five Senate nays, four were Democrats -- including Paul Simon of Illinois. (Carol Moseley-Braun voted yes.) President Bill Clinton signed it on Feb. 8, 1996, making it the first bill signed in cyberspace and the first signed at the Library of Congress.
Final irony: Despite the landmark, bipartisan law, Pressler became the only incumbent Republican senator to lose in November 1996. His opponent, Tim Johnson, charged that Pressler had sold out to high-tech companies from outside South Dakota.
According to legend, what cocktail did Winston Churchill's mother first concoct?
Answer to Tuesday's trivia: With 12 distinct colors, the flag of Belize has three more than any other country's banner. The national motto is "Sub Umbra Floreo" -- "I flourish in the shade (of the mahogany tree, the national tree)."
Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or email@example.com or call 239-2465.