May 09, 2013
By Charlene Muhammad
LAWT Contributing Writer
The California Public Utilities Commission is launching a series of hearings in search of ways to improve a state program that provides low income families a discount on basic, residential and wireless phone service.
Under the federally created LifeLine program, families receive flat-rate, local land-line telephone service. They may also receive wireless service through the LifeLine cell phone program but not at the same time, advocates caution.
The series of state-wide hearings will be held in eight cities (Fresno, Riverside, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, San Dimas, Rancho Cordova, and Eureka) between 4-7 p.m., May 14-June, 2013. Discussed will be potential changes such as new discount levels, expanding the services eligible for the discount, including wireless Lifeline service, and other non-traditional services.
“We have seen these kinds of proceedings influence the decisions made at the Commission, especially now, where we have four new commissioners at the CPUC,” said Ana Montes, during a tele-briefing with reporters on May 2. Montes is organizing director of the Utility Reform Network, which works on telecom, energy, water and environmental issues in California.
The “California’s LifeLine to the Future Tele-briefing” was hosted by the Center for Media Justice, the Utility Reform Network, and New America Media, a nationwide association of more than 3,000 ethnic media organizations.
Advocates say they intend to address the number of minutes people need to communicate effectively with employers, schools, doctors, social services, or for job interviews. But for now, their primary aim is to let people in need know what opportunities exist through the program and that the hearings are on the way.
Stephen Renderos, a national organizer for the Center for Media Justice, which works to transform media and end racism and poverty, feels the California LifeLine program is an important safety net for communities of color across the state.
“For 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,” Renderos said.
Nationally, 13.5 million people are enrolled in LifeLine programs, but another 15 million who are eligible (many in California) still aren’t enrolled, perhaps because they just don’t know about it, he noted.
“We believe that everyone has the right to communicate and when policy issues are being decided, we believe that the solutions should reflect and fundamentally change the real life experiences of marginalized communities, meaning communities of color,” Renderos continued.
In addition, advocates noted, rate payers pay for lifeline. It’s not a gift from telecommunications companies, and people have a right to affordable and reliable services, they argued.
According to Minister L.B. Tatum of Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement, a consortium of 20 African American churches in the San Bernardino region, the Inland Empire, San Bernardino County is facing an economic crisis.
He’d like to see CA LifeLine expand so grassroots, community based and faith-based organizations can help their constituents gain access, he said.
“LifeLine is needed because the folks we service are not always afforded opportunities to learn about it, and receive assistance filling out applications. We want to make sure the information about the program is marketed to the least of these,” Minister Tatum noted.
Part of what’s good about the program is the money people save on phone service means they’re able to buy food they otherwise couldn’t afford, advocates noted.
A major challenge, however, is the program requires a permanent address. Some families live in hotels and service providers don’t recognize those addresses, they explained.
Tina Cheung, a community organizer with the Chinatown Community Development Center, helps mono-lingual immigrants adjust to life in America. A recent tragedy underscores the importance of phone service, she said.
One family she assisted lived in a single room occupancy hotel, in very close proximity to their neighbors. Yet, no one knew that an elderly tenant had been deceased in the nearby unit until three weeks has passed. They were able to use their LifeLine phone to call 911 and the owner, according to Cheung.
“Often times those that qualify, whether it’s language barriers or other active barriers ... It is very possible for them to be connected ... Having that reliable phone service is so vital,” Cheung said.
Advocates expect a decision on any proposed changes to the program by the CA Public Utilities Commission within a year of the last scheduled public hearing on August 13.
(More information about the California LifeLine program is available at www.californialifeline.com.)