SRO Tenants Push CPUC for Improved Lifeline Phone Service

by Karin Drucker on May 17, 2013

On May 15, California Public Utilities Commissioner Catherine Sandoval heard testimony from clients of the low-cost phone service Lifeline and from individuals who are invested in its improvement. Beyond Chron reported on the issue a few days ago, and the hearing was a success. Sandoval held the hearing as part of the process of updating the California Lifeline program, which until now has been for land lines only. (The Federal Lifeline program allows for either a wireless or landline service.) The Central City SRO Collaborative, which helps individuals to sign up for Lifeline services, turned out many of its members and Lifeline clients to speak about the importance of this program and to advocate for reforms.

Testimony from residents, community organizers, non-profit managers, and city officials emphasized three major points: the importance or wireless service for connection to medical care, family, and employment. Speakers also expressed their gratitude for the program itself and for Commissioner Sandoval’s open solicitation of community feedback.

Some of the questions that the Commissioner posed to the audience included how to reform the application process, whether to offer unlimited minutes, and how to decide upon the type of discount that would apply. (The latter point is important but difficult to determine. With a fixed rate program, the services offered are likely to be a bare minimum and far inferior to standard plans; if California Wireless Lifeline were to offer a flat discount and allow customers to choose their plans, there would be more choice but possibly also a greater cost to clients.)

Individuals who are low-income and particularly those with whom the CCSROC works, are statistically more likely to be disabled and/or have special medical and mental health needs—and social service agencies are infamous for their long hold times. “Just trying to get a hold of social security, I spend multiple hours a month [of my minutes],” said another Tenderloin Single Resident Occupancy hotel resident.

Today’s Federal Lifeline plan, which does offer wireless service, provides only 250 minutes free each month. Sean, a resident of the Mission, pointed out that “250 minutes per month,” which amounts to roughly eight minutes a day, “just doesn’t work. I need a phone to wait for calls for potential employees. [My partner and I] were homeless and it wasn’t until we got a cell phone that we could secure employment.”

Bevan Dufty, Director of San Francisco’s HOPE (Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement) program, reiterated this point, adding that wireless programs can help break down barriers to housing and also work for homeless populations who cannot access a landline.

Priya Sawhny, a Community Organizer with Central City SRO Collaborative (CCSROC) who runs its Telecom Program, which signs individuals up for Lifeline, argued, “People in the low-income communities need this service more than anyone else—they need the unlimited minutes, they need the unlimited texting so that they can get in touch with their families, so they can make appointments with their doctors, so that they can get further connected with resources.”

Some of the issues that those of us with standard cell phone plans merely find annoying, such as the dreaded “phone tree,” can be disastrous for current Lifeline clients for whom phone trees sucks away minutes like tree roots suck water. Darnell Boyd, a Tenant Organizer for CCSROC and a Federal Lifeline client, told the Commissioner that by the time he hears “Press one for English, press two for Spanish, three for Mandarin… and then listens to a few moments of elevator music…my minutes are all gone.”

David Lewis, another CCSROC Tenant Organizer argued that California Wireless Lifeline should extend beyond just a wireless plan. “For low income people…wireless lifeline without a data plan is really a 2nd tier system, which excludes them from the rest of society.” There is a strong argument to be made for this: in April of 2013 the sale of smart phones overtook non-data phones for the first time. Another speaker noted that many homeless and low income San Francisco residents rely on smart phones for access to internet, which allows them to search for jobs and access services.

However, significant barriers still do not seem to be easily resolved. One speaker who works with women who have immigrated to the U.S. and are experiencing domestic violence asked the Commissioner to change the requirement that Lifeline applicants provide a social security number. Her clients cannot necessarily use a landline to call for help, which they frequently need to do.

Still, speakers’ appreciation of the program was palpable. Mark Toney, Director of the The Utility Reform Network summarized a common sentiment, “The point of the Lifeline program is that all of society benefits when everyone is connected to employment, health, school, and to each other.” We will have to wait and see whether the CPUC heeds the advice of the community it serves when it implements the new California Wireless Lifeline program.

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