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A program that provides discounted telephone service to low-income Californians is facing a new challenge in an age of cell phones: Many residents no longer just have a landline.
For the first time, California’s Lifeline telephone assistance program will include discounted wireless service – modernizing a program that has been around for nearly 30 years.
CPUC Public Hearings
Rancho Cordova, May 14 Rancho Cordova City Hall Council Chambers 2729 Prospect Park Drive
San Francisco, May 15 Commission Courtroom State Office Building 505 Van Ness Avenue
San Diego, June 12 Al Bahr Shriners Center 5440 Kearny Mesa Road
Riverside, June 17 City Hall 3900 Main Street, Riverside
Los Angeles, June 18 Caltrans District 7 HQ Rm. 01.040 A and B 100 S. Main Street
Eureka, July 17 Board of Supervisors 825 5th Street
Fresno July 31 Fresno City Hall Council Chambers 2nd floor 2600 Fresno Street
Salinas, August 13 Laurel Inn and Conference Center 801 West Laurel Drive
“We have the opportunity to actually create a California wireless Lifeline program that could be different from any other program in the nation,” Ana Montes, organizing director of The Utility Reform Network in San Francisco, told ethnic media reporters on a telebriefing co-hosted by her organization, The Center for Media Justice and New America Media.
But making the program work for wireless consumers raises new questions. The PUC will be looking for input from consumers on the monthly amount residents can afford to pay, the necessary number of minutes, and whether services such as texting, data/Internet access, and emergency phone calls should be included.
Tina Cheung, a community organizer at Chinatown Community Wellness Center in San Francisco, said the phone assistance program is especially valuable for “California’s most vulnerable in low-income communities, including those that are monolingual, new immigrants, and folks that have limited English speaking capacity.”
“It really connects families who are often far away,” she said. “Not everyone lives by each other anymore.”
“As its name indicates, it’s actually intended to be a safety net for people in times of need, whether that need is to seek employment, or education, or health care,” explained Steven Renderos, national organizer for The Center for Media Justice.
“Lifeline was always meant to reduce the economic barriers for families in need of telephone service,” said Renderos, “and over the years, in today’s rapidly evolving economy, those communication needs are now mobile.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 87 percent of adults own a cell phone. As of 2011, 27.9 percent of California households are wireless only.
“When you think about that, in contrast to computers or the Internet, Latinos and African-Americans, and communities of color in general, are actually using cell phones that are adapting the use of smart phones at the same rates as whites,” said Renderos.
The New Millennium Research Foundation conducted a survey of about 5,500 Lifeline wireless subscribers, which asked subscribers what they used their cell phones for.
“The number one reason was to stay in touch with family, but the number two reason was to be in touch with their employer,” said Renderos. “In communities of color and low-income communities, the cell phone is not just a means to communicate. It’s also a means to improve their financial situation.”
According to Renderos, the Lifeline cell phone program can be seen as an economic tool.
“For low-income cell phone users, [Lifeline] generates an average of $259 a year,” he said.
Currently, 13.5 million households subscribe to Lifeline nationally. Another 50 million households that are eligible for the program are not enrolled.
Although wireless cell phone usage has proven to be vital in California’s low-income communities, many residents face obstacles in obtaining cell phones for reasons as minor as a recognized physical address – a problem in both rural and urban settings.
“There have been many challenges,” admitted Priya Sawhney, a community organizer at the Central City SRO Collaborative in San Francisco. For those residing in low-income permanent residential hotels, she said, “Their physical address at the hotel is not recognized as a permanent address.”
“Service providers more than often don’t recognize these addresses, hence the population who needs these services the most is not able to get them,” said Sawhney.
L.B. Tatum, a minister working with Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement in San Bernardino, is concerned that some who need the program may not even know about it.
“We certainly see where it is needed and those who need the service are not always afforded the opportunity to learn about it or to receive assistance in filling out applications,’ said Tatum. “We want to make sure that information about the program is marketed to those who are disenfranchised, those who are suffering economically.”
Lifeline’s new wireless program is expected to be implemented within a year.
The California Public Utilities Commission will seek input from customers in pubic hearings in May and June in cities throughout California, including Fresno, Riverside, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, and Salinas. To attend a PUC hearing in your area, contact the Public Advisor’s Office at firstname.lastname@example.org or toll free at 866-849-8390.
Ivan Delgado is a reporter for Coachella Unincorporated.