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 OpenSecrets.org.

"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 FoxNews.com 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.”