How California Got Lifeline Right

By Ana Montes, Special to The Mercury News

When Gina Juarez’ husband was forced onto disability due to a heart condition, just paying for the necessities was rough. “One by one, basic things like phone and trash service were being discontinued.  Our electricity and water were almost shut off and we even got behind on our rent.”  Luckily, Juarez was able to depend on California’s recently modernized Lifeline program to provide her family with an essential phone connection until they could get back on their feet.

Watch TURN Director of Organizing Ana Montes speak on the Lifeline broadband program

The rest of the country can learn a lot from Juarez’s story.  As the Federal Communications Commission implements its modernization of the Lifeline program to include Internet access in addition to wireless and landline phone service, it should look to California’s model. This small investment in communications technology can yield huge results, enabling access to medical care, employment, and many other important services when eligible customers like Juarez need them most.

In California, recent changes to the Lifeline program have helped millions of households afford essential phone service despite the rising cost of living and stagnant wages.  The improvements California made relied on community involvement.  The California Public Utilities Commission worked with advocates and listened to customers share their stories at public hearings, describing the barriers they faced and the elements they hoped to see in a modernized LifeLine program.

Chief among these California changes was expanding the program to include cell phone service. Other successful policies adopted in California included:

  • Elimination of the requirement for customers to provide a Social Security Number, and easier verification processes for those who already participate in income-verified programs such as free or reduced school lunch programs for families.
  • Choice of a family plan.For many working families, receiving a subsidy for a family plan is vitally important, and allows them to maximize the benefits by keeping family members in touch with each other and with essential services, health care providers and, when necessary, 911 emergency services.
  • Capped subsidy.  California protects consumers against carriers who use a bait and switch approach to jack up rates after customers sign up.

Critics have complained about fraud in the federal Lifeline program, but fail to observe the billions saved over the past four years through responsible reforms.  California’s model rejects the “poor person’s phone” and instead offers robust service that provides adequate connectivity – at the right standards.

See Ana Montes talk about broadband access as a civil rights issue

Lifeline was an outgrowth of our national commitment to universal phone service, and should remain so.  But universal service today requires something more.  Many government services are only reachable online.  Many school homework assignments can only be done online.  Giving all Americans a stronger Lifeline by making cell phones and internet access more affordable will make healthcare, education and employment more readily available, strengthening families and keeping them connected.

Ana Montes is Director of Organizing for The Utility Reform Network (TURN), based in San Francisco, CA.