After hearing from low-income tenants and their advocates, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has unanimously voted to maintain and expand basic phone services. The December 20, 2012 action means that SRO tenants with cellphones will no longer have to go outside to make calls because carriers were not providing service in rooms. And if their service falters, they can change carriers at no charge. Led by community leaders from the Central City SRO Collaborative (CCSRO) and the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) along with The Utility Reform Network (TURN), activists’ have been attending CPUC hearings for months in order to win support for high quality, reliable, and affordable basic phone services. Their efforts prevailed.

Over the past months, the CCSRO and other groups wrote hundreds of letters to the CPUC to protect and expand basic phone service. Community residents attended CPUC hearings to ensure that commissioners took their stories into consideration when deciding how to vote on defining basic phone services.

CPUC President Peevey initiated the discussion when he addressed the ongoing technological shift from wireline (i.e. landlines) to wireless. Had Peevey’s original proposed decision passed, it would have downgraded basic phone services by allowing wireless companies to offer wireless lifeline without the phone having to work in a person’s home. His proposed decision also lacked language which would require companies to offer stand-alone basic service like being able to make a phone call. This would allow companies to raise rates and offer bundles at any price they wish. Peevey’s original proposal could have potentially weakened or eliminated the standards for basic phone service in that providers wouldn’t be required to ensure call completion or local emergency 911 services.

Commissioner Florio’s alternate proposal supported high quality, reliable and affordable phone service which would require companies to offer standalone basic phone service that works in the resident’s home. In doing this, Florio’s alternate proposal would prevent companies from raising their rates and offering expensive bundles.

After many hearings, both President Peevey and Commissioner Florio converged their decisions and resolved minor differences. Under the new definition of basic service, carriers are required to demonstrate how they will meet the requirements of basic service regardless of whether it is wireless or wireline.

This new definition also requires all basic service providers to provide affordable service which reliably works in the homes of residents. If there are problems with the connection, providers must routinely and promptly fix any connection issues or provide their customers with other choices that don’t result in any penalties.

Community leaders spoke at the CPUC and addressed their concerns regarding the importance of having a phone which works. Whether it be to call 911, to keep in touch with loved ones, to look for jobs, to call their doctors, or speak to their social workers, the low-income community needs high-quality telephone service.

According to Darnell Boyd, a Lifeline customer, “The commissioners needed to hear our voices and struggles surrounding telephone services, they needed to hear that we need affordable service which doesn’t require us going outside our homes in order to make a call. They needed to hear that in many cases, having these basic services can mean the difference between life and death for our communities.”

Since the basic services vote, Governor Brown has made new appointments which should enhance the CPUC’s concern for low-income Californians. Many issues affecting low-income phone users remain, and the shift to a more pro-consumer CPUC could not have come at a better time.

Priya Sawhney is Telecom Voice Coordinator for the CCSRO