FCC: Sprint ineligible for federal subsidies it claimed

Sprint, the nation’s fourth-biggest wireless carrier, may have wrongfully made millions of dollars from a federal subsidy program designed to make cellphone and Internet service more affordable for low-income Americans, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

The company, which is currently seeking the FCC’s permission to merge with T-Mobile, claimed monthly credits for as many as 885,000 customers under the US government’s Lifeline program. But Sprint was ineligible to claim the federal funds, the FCC said, because it failed to report that the customers were not actually using the subsidized service.

In a statement Tuesday, Sprint said the issue stemmed from an error in the systems used to calculate customer eligibility for Lifeline. The company blamed the error on regulatory changes to the Lifeline program in 2016.

“When the error was discovered, we immediately investigated and proactively raised this issue with the FCC and appropriate state regulators,” Sprint said. “We also engaged an independent third party to review the results of our review and the effectiveness of our operational changes.”

Sprint on Tuesday offered to pay back the government for any improper claims.

The discrepancy — first discovered during an investigation by the Oregon Public Utility Commission, according to the FCC — marks one of the most significant alleged violations of the Lifeline program’s rules in its more than 30-year history. It accounts for nearly 10 percent of the entire program’s user base, the agency said.

“It’s outrageous that a company would claim millions of taxpayer dollars for doing nothing,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “This shows a careless disregard for program rules and American taxpayers. I have asked our Enforcement Bureau to investigate this matter to determine the full extent of the problem and to propose an appropriate remedy.”

FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield said the agency’s investigation will likely look into how long the issue persisted. The Oregon Public Utility Commission said in a statement Tuesday that it has received customer complaints about Sprint for over a year.

The complaints prompted Oregon officials to launch an investigation comparing Sprint’s phone usage records with an actual cellphone provided by a subscriber. Despite not using the phone for 45 days — meaning the device made no calls, sent no texts and did not consume data — investigators discovered that Sprint’s records nevertheless showed the device was in use.

“This spurred notification to Sprint and FCC of the discrepancy,” the Oregon commission said in its statement.

The investigation into Sprint comes at a delicate time for the company as it seeks to complete its merger with T-Mobile. The company is already defending a lawsuit filed by more than a dozen states seeking to block the deal. Now, the FCC allegations could put Sprint’s merger with T-Mobile in even further jeopardy, as the FCC has still yet to vote on the tie-up. The FCC declined to comment on the pending deal.

Sprint’s complications could also create new headaches for Pai, who has enthusiastically supported the merger.

Geoffrey Starks, a Democratic FCC commissioner, on Tuesday called on Pai to withdraw his proposal to approve the deal.

“Given the enormity of the apparent wrongdoing committed here, we must pause our Commission review,” Starks said in a statement. “How the merging parties were going to handle Lifeline was a prominent part of their merger pitch, so I am alarmed and concerned about such a massive inaccuracy in a core part of the transaction.”

Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr declined to comment. Michael O’Rielly, the FCC’s third Republican, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Lifeline is a Reagan-era program that each month provides $9.25 to eligible low-income households to defray the cost of buying phone service. During the Obama administration, Lifeline was expanded to allow that credit to be applied to broadband service. Critics of the program have pushed for limits on Lifeline, accusing it of harboring waste, fraud and abuse. Proponents have said it is a valuable program that helps minorities, veterans and other groups.

“When companies abuse the Lifeline program, we should throw the book at them,” Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic FCC Commissioner, tweeted. “Here’s what we shouldn’t do: Kick off the millions of seniors, veterans, and domestic violence shelters nationwide that rely on this program to stay connected.”