Georgia could become the first state to charge low-income residents $5 a month for what is now free cellphone service aimed at assuring the poor have access to basic communications.
The proposal before the state Public Service Commission comes after reports of fraud and abuse in the federal cellphone program, called Lifeline.
The charge has drawn criticism from consumers groups who say the state’s poorest residents should not have to pay $60 a year for phone service. Phone companies that participate in Lifeline say they do not have the systems in place to bill Lifeline consumers.
Some of the companies object because they fear it would reduce usage and cost them federal revenue they get for providing the service.
The PSC is scheduled to vote on the issue Tuesday. The commission voted 3-2 last winter to proceed with planning how the charge would work.
The charge idea, pushed mainly by commission member Doug Everett, came after a U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that as many as one in six people receiving free cell phones did not meet income or other need-based requirements to receive the free or discounted phone service.
The Federal Communications Commission overhauled Lifeline in 2012, requiring consumers to reapply for the program annually and to provide better documentation of income. A national database that lets phone companies cross-check and see whether someone already has a Lifeline phone is scheduled to be released to all 50 states next year.
In Georgia, the number of Lifeline customers has dropped 35 percent from 1.1 million in September 2012 to roughly 717,000 in August 2013 because of the FCC reforms and the improved economy. A group of phone companies who provide Lifeline phones to Georgians also have started their own database to keep track of customers.
Everett said those steps aren’t enough.
“The FCC is not doing all the jobs that they could be doing, and we’re having to take up the slack,” he said during a PSC hearing last week.