CPUC is helping needy stay connected

AP file photoThe Lifeline discount program had previously applied only to landlines

AP file photoThe Lifeline discount program had previously applied only to landlines

Impoverished California residents, many of them homeless and without access to landlines, will finally get a little help paying for their monthly cellphone bills.

For years, the California Public Utilities Commission has offered discounted rates for low-income residents who use landline telephones. But with those devices becoming increasingly rare, that financial aid package offered little assistance to many.

After approval of a new plan last week, the CPUC is modernizing its antiquated standards for phone service, extending its discount system — called the Lifeline program — to cellphones. As a result, qualified users can now spend about $5 to $7 a month to have unlimited local calls.

By updating its definition of basic service, the CPUC ruling also will allow low-income cellphone users to have access to enhanced 911 services, the ability to place and receive calls over all distances using the public voice network, and the option of changing billing services.

Jackie Jenks, executive director of the Hospitality House, a homeless shelter and employment center, said the CPUC decision is long overdue.

“Right now, we have low-income and homeless folks paying the regular rates for cellphones, so the cost becomes prohibitive,” Jenks said. “And if they’re looking for employment, or housing opportunities or need medical services, having a phone is absolutely critical. Being able to qualify for discounted rates will help deal with that issue.”

The rate of cellphone usage has increased significantly in recent years while landline usage has dropped. More than 22 percent of California households rely solely on cellphone service and just 13.7 percent have only landlines, according to CPUC data.

“We don’t have payphones anymore,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness. “People have to rely on cellphones. Some may be able to buy a prepaid plan, but by the end of the month, those minutes are all dried up and they’re left with few options.”

Low-income cellphone users may see the new program expand even more in the future. Bevan Dufty, director of Mayor Ed Lee’s program on homelessness, is working with CPUC officials to bring a federal discount plan to California. That program, already available in 36 states, would allow low-income residents to purchase a cellphone and have a calling plan with 250 minutes and 250 texts a month for free.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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