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Lifeline telephone program should catch up


Our success in the 21st century economy is dependent on thinking about, building and using 21st century technology. Similarly, equality of opportunity in the 21st century is dependent on how well we ensure that this technology is widely available to people of all walks of life.

We have looked to the California Lifeline Telephone Program–which provides discounted phone service to low income consumers–to play an important role in ensuring this equality of opportunity in California.

When I wrote the law enacting the state’s Lifeline program in 1983, the Internet was still in its infancy, mobile technology was expensive and wasn’t widely used and the main challenge we faced was making sure that traditional phone service was widely available.

But today, to truly support equality of opportunity and the intent and spirit of the “Moore Act,” we can’t disregard newer technologies like wireless service and voice-over-the-Internet. That is why I believe the California Public Utilities Commission’s (CPUC) plan to bring the state’s Lifeline program into the 21st century is such an important tool to help close the digital divide.

The challenge today is that low-income consumers can only get Lifeline discounts for “basic service;” and, basic service is defined as traditional “landline service.”

In 1983, this definition of basic service made sense as there were no other alternatives. But today, consumers have moved way beyond that definition and for the program to truly achieve its purpose, we need to expand the definition to reflect the realities of the day.

More than 25 percent of consumers and 36 percent of low-income consumers are “wireless only,” and don’t even use a landline. Additionally, more than 70 percent of all 911 calls come in on a wireless phone. Latinos and African Americans are more likely than Caucasians to use their wireless phone to access the Internet. Overall, they’re six times more likely than Caucasians to access the Internet with a mobile phone in lieu of a home broadband connection.

The CPUC has proposed that low-income families be given an $11.50 a month subsidy that they can apply to voice-over-the-Internet, wireless or traditional landline service. This makes perfect sense.

For the Lifeline program to be even more useful, the definition of basic service has to be updated to allow for newer technologies. Landline, wireless and voice-over-the-Internet are all different technologies. Lifeline consumers should be able to benefit from the advantages that these alternative technologies have to offer.

The definition of basic service should be expanded to allow for the different technologies and permit low income consumers to make their own choices. Adding to, not limiting consumer choice was what I intended when I drafted the law. Low-income consumers should be allowed to apply their subsidy to the technology of their choice–the one they use today–not just the technology that was available nearly 30 years ago, when the program was started. I was very proud to have helped bring the Lifeline program to millions of low-income California consumers.

The CPUC is holding a series of hearings across the state to hear from the public on its plan to update the definition of basic service. It is important that we speak up and encourage the CPUC to catch up the Lifeline Program with technology. It will hold a hearing in Los Angeles on March 24 where I commend the CPUC for working to update the program and listening to consumers. I believe bringing 21st century technology into the hands of more consumers is one of the best ways to help close the digital divide and promote equality of opportunity.

Former Assemblywoman Gwen Moore chaired the Assembly Utilities and Commerce Committee and authored the Moore Lifeline Act, which has helped bring affordable access to millions of low income Californians.

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