The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is holding a public participation hearing on May 15th regarding California’s nascent wireless Lifeline program. The program will supplement existing Federal Lifeline programs, which provide phone services to low income individuals. Many California Lifeline clients have experienced more than their fair share of issues with Federal wireless Lifeline. Although some media outlets have covered Lifeline’s issues, commercials on radio and newspapers everywhere present the Federal wireless program as an easy-to-access service, but in reality clients face enormous barriers to receiving Lifeline services. For example, many clients, especially in the Tenderloin and South of Market areas, live in Single Resident Occupancy (SRO) hotels. Cell phone providers do not recognize SROs as permanent residences. As a result, providers deny these clients who are in most need of affordable phone service. In other cases, clients who made it past the Federal Lifeline approval process have had difficulty receiving their cell-phones because many different providers and third parties must rubber stamp their application.

Even when clients finally receive their cellphones, they report having little or no service in their rooms and have had to go outside to use their cell phones. Although Federal wireless Lifeline service providers have often advertised their service as free, clients have been particularly unsatisfied by the amount of monthly minutes. Assurance Wireless, which is a federal wireless provider, advertises “250 free minutes” every month. However, this figure only gives the customer eight minutes per day! If clients have to speak to their social workers, family members, or—heaven forbid— doctors, they could easily spend more than eight minutes on hold. Their remaining option is to purchase monthly minute plans, which cost much more. This is just the tip of a proverbial iceberg of challenges facing Federal Lifeline clients and underscores how important it is to get the California program right.

A step in the right direction

Many of the clients who come to the Central City SRO Collaborative’s Telecom program, which connects eligible individuals with Lifeline services, have expressed these concerns about Federal wireless Lifeline. For this reason, tomorrow’s public participation hearing at CPUC is a good platform for current Lifeline clients, community leaders, and other residents to tell to Commissioner Sandoval exactly what they need for California’s low income telephone service to succeed.

What will the low-income community tell Commissioner Sandoval?

“We want unlimited minutes!”

If wireless Lifeline providers are going to be providing service to the low-income community they need to provide an adequate amount of minutes. “Eight minutes of free talk time per day is simply a scheme to get us to buy more minutes and when we buy more minutes, we pay more…[So] are we really getting anything for free?” says Joseph Pena, a Lifeline client. Having an adequate amount of minutes is especially important for a population which faces an ample amount of challenges in searching for jobs, staying connected with loved ones, and keeping it touch with social workers and doctors.

“We want a cellphone plan that fits our budget!”

Most of the clients who need wireless Lifeline receive a fixed monthly income. Therefore, spending even $10-$20 each month can be a stretch. Having a cellphone plan which is feasible, reasonable, and affordable is crucial for Lifeline’s beneficiaries. California’s Lifeline program should keep costs to a minimum.

“We want customer choice!”

Often, Lifeline clients tell me that they have been treated like second class citizens. This is why they find it important to ask Commissioner Sandoval to pressure carrier providers to offer Lifeline clients good choices. Clients want to be able to choose between wireless Lifeline and landline, they want to be the ones to make the decision whether or not they should bundle their phone, cable, and/or internet service, and Lifeline clients want to be able to choose a family plan.

Clients and advocates intend to use this upcoming Public Participation hearing as a platform to suggest the best possible services for low-income residents of California. I urge leaders and other community members to voice the need for affordable and reliable cellphone service. Having more than eight minutes a day could be the difference between life and death for a Lifeline client who is in crisis. If California Lifeline does not meet its clients’ needs, California will be wasting its money filling the coffers of large carriers and ripping off the individuals it is supposed to serve.

Priya Sahney is an organizer with the CCSRO Collaborative