Building a LifeLine to the Future

California is poised to modernize its LifeLine program and demand accountability from phone companies for the subsidies they receive.

The LifeLine program has historically offered income eligible customers a landline phone for about $6. Under a proposal by Commissioner Sandoval of the California PUC it will be expanded to include mobile service, with robust consumer protections that will advance the crucial goal of universal phone service.

The principle underlying the national commitment to universal telephone service is that all of society benefits when everybody is connected to medical providers, emergency services, schools, workplaces, social service agencies, businesses, and to our families both locally and globally. Under the guidance of federal and state regulatory agencies for the past 100 years, a system of industry subsidies with corresponding public service obligations have created a robust copper wire–based infrastructure that enriches society by weaving a lifeline to public safety, economic growth, and social cohesion.

In recent years, phone companies including AT&T have spent millions of dollars lobbying legislators and lobbyists for “deregulation”, which is corporate-speak for dismantling consumer protections. In fact, AT&T attempted an end-run around the CPUC on LifeLine as well, trying to push a self-serving bill through the Legislature, but a coalition of consumer and low-income groups managed to beat it back.

That leaves the CPUC free to do its job, and listen to the 99%. In her decision, Commissioner Sandoval credited testimony from public hearings statewide organized through TURN’s statewide PolicyVoice organizing project for providing valuable customer perspective. The changes we want will keep low-income customers connected to affordable, reliable phone service whether they chose a mobile or landline plan, and whether they chose and individual or family plan.

If the proposal passes, California will be setting new national standards for LifeLine phone service, one that we hope other states will follow.”

Unfortunately, technological changes in the phone industry will continue to threaten universal service.Rising prices are one way some customers are left behind; another threat comes with stealth campaigns by AT&T and Verizon to migrate customers away from the landline copper network to internet based technologies that have fewer consumer protections.

TURN believes that the migration of voice and data transmission to networks using Internet Protocol must preserve the social compact to provide society with telecommunication service that is universal, reliable, and affordable. Digital communications technology is a double–edged sword that can be used either as tool to make society more fair and equitable—or as an instrument to reinforce economic and racial inequalities.

The vision of broadband and wireless service that reaches into all communities enabling dependable communications with a comprehensive array of institutions and individuals at prices that don’t force people to choose between phones and food—remains a far cry from today’s system of unreliable service at some of the slowest speeds and highest prices in the world.

TURN is fighting on the federal level, as well as here in California, to make sure lower income customers are not marginalized and that everyone, regardless of their race, region, income or immigration status, has access to affordable, reliable service- and 911 emergency services. We won’t allow the phone companies to abandon consumer protections under the guise of technological advancement, although that is often the excuse they use when trying to convince the CPUC and lawmakers that they are being oppressed and held back by rules requiring accountability and fair treatment of customers.

TURN has heard the tired and disproven arguments about deregulation before, and they always come from the very same corporations that stand to profit the most from unlimited price hikes and unprotected customers.The push for deregulation never comes from consumers.

The policies most of us want, that contain the intersection of equity, sustainability, and affordability do not happen by accident of free market deregulation. And they don’t happen when corporate lobbyists and apologists call the shorts. They happen when the people speak, and regulators and legislators sit up and listen.