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Wireless exec with ties to Obama wins contract to supply poor with smartphones

A cellphone company run by a major Democratic donor and President Obama backer has extended its foray into government contracts, from the so-called “Obama phone” to a project intended to provide high-speed Internet access to low-income families -- amid criticism its product is ill-equipped.

Critics also suggest TracFone Wireless CEO F.J. Pollak used his Obama connections to help his company get one of the 14 contracts.  

At issue is a $13.8 million pilot project by the Federal Communications Commission that attempts to find the best ways to increase the broadband access rate among the poor and help improve their digital skills – to eventually help them manage household finances, look for work and do other tasks.

The contracts were awarded late last year. The maximum support for the project is $915,000.

Pollak and his wife, Abigail, are major Obama bundlers and Democratic donors. The couple hosted a $40,000-a-plate fundraising dinner in June at their Miami Beach home. And Abigail Pollak alone raised at least $632,000 for the Obama re-election effort, a total $1.56 million for him since 2007, according to a financial documents obtained by The New York Times.  

In addition, F.J. Pollak has been to the White House at least twice. And he and his wife gave an estimated $270,000 to Democratic candidates in the last election cycle, according to 

"That has absolutely nothing to do with business,” Jose Fuentes, a spokesman for TracFone's parent company, America Movil, told The Washington Times. “There's been no pay-for-play — or even favors. What he does in his private time is his."

But critics also say TracFone, by supplying project participants with its top-line smartphone, would not accomplish the goals of the FCC project.

John B. Horrigan, a researcher at the Pew Internet & American Life Project, writes on the Social Science Research Network website that small screens and keyboards on so-called smartphones, and perhaps connectivity issues, result in their users having trouble engaging “as deeply with the Internet” as home broadband users.

An FCC spokesman told on Wednesday the one-year projects were chosen through a competition intended to find ones that would gather facts and data about “technologically diverse approaches to increasing broadband adoption, including fixed and mobile broadband.”

He also said a second TracFone proposal was rejected and that the $13.8 million for the project comes from roughly $214 million worth of reforms and modernizations to the precursor Lifeline program, which provides low-cost access to cellphones for low-income families.

The purported $2.4 billion-a-year Lifeline project has been around since the mid 1980s but was dubbed the “Obama phone” following a viral video in which a potential voter suggests re-electing the president to keep the program going.

“Keep Obama as president,” she says. “He gave us a phone.”