PUC’s dithering hurts those who depend on basic phone service

The glacial pace of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has rendered California’s LifeLine program—which helps the poor, the elderly, and the disadvantaged obtain low cost telephone service—nearly obsolete. The program is many years out of date, and must be modernized to keep up with changing technologies.

The current LifeLine program only helps low-income households with landline telephone service. LifeLine support cannot go to customers using cell phones or Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (VoIP) services like Skype.

For more than seven years, the CPUC has dithered on updating the LifeLine program, even though the Legislature, in 2010, weighed in and directed them to include wireless and VoIP service under LifeLine. As a result, low-income consumers who want and use these serviced are being left out.

The CPUC promised to develop a new plan by the end of 2013 that would give LifeLinecustomers a choice between landline and wireless service. But its own procedural memo calls for the deliberations to end sometime in late 2014. What’s more, it may be years more beforeVoIP customers will be able to receive LifeLine support—we just don’t know.

Low-income families have waited long enough, and they need LifeLine support now. They should not have to wait any longer. I have asked the Legislature to act to give those families the choices the rest of us enjoy.

Assembly bill 1407 gives customers more options than they currently have. It allows customers to keep the landline service they already have, or they can apply the LifeLine discount to wireless or VoIP service.

It does not change Lifeline for landline service – if you want Lifeline for your landline you can get it. My bill does not remove ANY existing consumer protections on service.In fact, it directs the PUC to continue to administer and track the program. But it does modernize the program to give poor families the means to afford services they currently cannot.

No Californian with limited financial resources should be locked out of the LifeLine program simply because a landline home phone is not the right service for them.

Technology is moving and improving at warp speed—and low-income consumers have moved with it.

Twenty-seven civil rights groups and technology companies and even LifeLine’s original author agree that it’s long past time for the LifeLine program to catch up. To paraphrase Rev. Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. in his book Why We Can’t Wait, the poor are expected to quietly endure, silently suffer, and patiently wait. They want new technology, endure the lack of access, and bear the cost – without support.

Ed’s Note: Assembly Member Steven Bradford represents the 62nd Assembly District in Los Angeles and is Chair of the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee.

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