Every month, a percentage of your phone bill goes toward paying for Internet access for schools, hospitals and libraries in rural areas.
A state agency oversees providers’ bids, but a bill that has already passed in the state House of Representatives could change that, and lead to higher phone bills.
House Bill 2616 would end state oversight of the Universal Services Fund.
Since the 1990’s the fund has existed to bring internet service to areas that otherwise couldn’t get it.
Federal dollars pay for 50 to 90 percent of the program and the state pays the rest through fees collected on your phone bill.
So a few years ago, the state started auditing the providers.
"We were seeing what we considered to be rampant waste and abuse if not fraud in some cases," said fund administrator Brandy Wreath. “For example, we would see where we would have an entity go out and would bid for services for schools and hospitals, the same thing happened and they would be charging literally five, six, up to seven times for the same service as what other carriers would provide for.”
Because of the audits, ratepayers have saved $15 million per year, according to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
The bill making its way through the state legislature would do away the audits and the oversights, allowing the federal government to just rubber stamp bids from service providers.
“They receive 45,000 requests a year. They do not audit those requests,” Wreath said. “They are passively approved. In other words, if you submit your paperwork on time you receive the funding.”
The bill passed overwhelmingly in the House, but House members we spoke with told News 9 they didn’t fully understand the bill when they voted.
Many were also pressured by schools, libraries and hospitals to pass the bill so checks could be written sooner.
“I think they thought they were signing on to something that looked robust and just didn’t fully understand it,” Wreath said.
The bill now moves to the Senate where lawmakers there are looking at it a bit closer.
“This is one of those instances where if the bill is enacted we could have some serious problems just basically giving them a blank check and oversight as well,” said state Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City. “So that’s one of the biggest concerns with me is just giving that over to the federal government.”
News 9 reached out to state Rep. Todd Thomsen, who authored the bill, but he did not respond.