In 2001, Tenderloin tenants organized by the Central City SRO Collaborative went to multiple public hearings to demand that the City stop an SRO landlord from converting an 88-room hotel to tourist use. The commissioners at the Board of Appeals didn’t want to uphold a basic zoning law, so they kept delaying the vote – hoping that the low-income people would get tired and just go away. Today, I’m getting a weird sense of déjŕ vu – as the California Public Utilities Commission keeps putting off a plan to deregulate the state’s Lifeline Telephone service. Thousands of low-income senior and disabled folks rely on this program for a basic phone line at a flat rate, but the AT&T-backed proposal would link the service cost to a percentage of “market-rate” customers – which the phone companies would be free to increase dramatically. Tomorrow, the item is again on the CPUC’s agenda – which means grassroots senior and disabled residents have to return. Meanwhile, AT&T is pushing an astroturf lobbying effort to assure Commissioners that it’s more than just making money. Will they fall for the ruse?

The May 21st meeting at the CPUC had some powerful testimony from consumers who rely on the Lifeline program, and it had an effect on the Commissioners. Once again, they pushed the delay the proposal to a future meeting – as members of the Central City SRO Collaborative, Senior Action Network and other groups gave public testimony about how crucial the program is. "For the 18,000 residents of San Francisco's SRO’s,” said Jeff Buckley, “Lifeline service is quite literally a matter of life or death. Most of them would be afraid to sign up for a service with fluctuating rates, because their incomes are so low that even a small increase would be unbearable.”

But you know you’re having an effect when the opposition gets scared. Recent reports are that AT&T has been waging a lobbying effort of its own – hoping to recruit phone customers in an Astroturf campaign to convince us the proposal is good for low-income people. The plan in front of the CPUC would extend the Lifeline program to cell phones, which by itself is not a bad idea. But it would accomplish this by offering “vouchers” to customers with no guarantee of affordability, and de-regulate the $6/month flat rate that low-income people currently pay – making the proposal a “bait-and-switch” scam.

“This proposal flies in the face of California's commitment to universal service,” said Mark Toney – executive director of the consumer advocate group TURN. “The CPUC has heard compelling testimony on the importance of affordable service at a fixed rate. To suggest that consumers who can barely afford a landline would be able to purchase cell service is like saying ‘let them eat cake.’ Most of the people who spoke out against this proposal can barely afford bread.”

The CPUC will consider this proposal on Thursday, June 4th (tomorrow) at 10:00 a.m. – in their San Francisco office at 505 Van Ness Avenue. Concerned residents, senior and disabled activists and low-income tenants are urged to speak at public comment (which is the first item on the agenda), and tell the CPUC not to fall for AT&T’s scam. Unlike at City Hall, members of the public should show up before the meeting starts – so they can sign up for public comment. TURN is asking supporters to show up at their office (711 Van Ness #350) at 9:00 a.m., for a briefing on the issue.