Niagara Gazette

March 22, 2010

CONFER: Cell phones are not a right

By Bob Confer
Niagara Gazette

NIAGARA FALLS — Numerous times in our young marriage the wife and I have had discussions about our cell phone packages. We’ve debated at length the minutes, data plans and equipment that best suit our needs and, more importantly, our budget.

Conversations such as those play themselves out in millions of households across the United States. It’s a common subject because most people agree that, unless their job requires their use, cell phones are luxury items. Mankind has survived for eons without these devices, which have only relatively recently become mainstream in their usage. Many rightly know that if something must be cut in a family’s budget there’s a good chance their calling plan will be the first to go. After all, telephones are nowhere near as important to our well-being as food, water and shelter.

Even though the common and fiscal senses dictate that cellular phones aren’t a necessity, there are still plenty of people in government — and many more who are subservient to them — who believe they are. They even go so far as to believe they are a human right and everyone deserves one.

Unfortunately, it’s we, not they, who are paying for that misguided belief.

For the source of your donation (albeit a forced one) look at your most recent phone bills — cellular or landline. Locate the line item that says “Federal USF Surcharge.” A typical home phone may show a charge of just more than $1. Family packages on cellular devices could show something in excess of $2. Business phones, depending on traffic, face higher fees. As an example, in our busiest months, my company pays about $25. Now, just imagine the collections from millions of families and businesses. It works out to be about $9 billion per year.

The aforementioned surcharge (read “tax”) is for the Universal Service Fund, a behemoth of public benevolence created by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The fund has four distinct responsibilities. The government uses it to temper phone charges in high cost areas, provide affordable telecommunications services to economically disadvantaged schools and libraries, aid rural health care providers in their ability to communicate and, last but not least, provide free or discounted phone service to low-income individuals (to the tune of just under $1 billion annually).

It’s the latter that drives the countless ads you see on TV or the Internet from companies like SafeLink Wireless and Assurance Wireless that tell people they can get free cell phones that come equipped with 60 to 200 free minutes per month, depending on the carrier and the state. Families who fall under certain income thresholds (135 percent of the poverty rate) or receive public housing assistance or Medicaid, are eligible for the phones — fully funded by your taxes.

Many folks on both the Left and Right have no qualms — or limited ones — about helping others get through tough times with home and health subsidies. But cell phones, that’s another story. These free phone programs have been met with justified protest in many states.

But, alas, the program subsists because of concerns like “discontinue the program and what will the poor people do?” To them, I pose the simple answer, the right answer. They need to do as the rest of society and if times get tough do without the cell phone. Do like we did 15 years ago before this program was ever conceived: Rely on a landline (whether it’s theirs, their friend’s or family’s) or a payphone. They could even rewind to the 1980s and get a CB radio. They worked just fine as the mobile communication device of choice back then (they were that era’s cell phone) and for a one-time investment equal to a month’s telephone bill someone can outfit their car or home with a quality set-up. As someone who still keeps a CB in the truck and home, I can attest to their timeless usefulness.

Basically, when it comes to non-essential items, you make accommodations to deal with life’s inconveniences. As singularly important as we all think we are, there are really very few people who need to be in constant contact or have the ongoing accessibility afforded by a cell phone. They are a modern luxury and, to many users, nothing more than a toy. It sure doesn’t sound like something we should be spending our tax dollars on.

Think about it: As you struggle to pay your family’s cell bill month to month, do you take any consolation in the fact that you’re subsidizing someone else’s ability to gab with their friends free of charge?

I didn’t think so.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. E-mail him at bobconfer@juno.com.