Editorial: Congress must protect access to phone service

Published: Wednesday, Mar. 13, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 18A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Mar. 13, 2013 - 7:02 pm

Most people in the United States take access to phone service for granted – for making calls in an emergency, for keeping in touch with family and friends, for conducting business and for generally connecting with the world outside their homes.

But this didn't just happen by itself. The nation in the 1930s made a commitment to universal service for all American households.

Congress passed and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Communications Act of 1934, which promised "to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, a rapid, efficient, nationwide, and worldwide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges."

The commitment to universal service is under attack from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Republicans, who want to end certain phone discounts that help lower-income Americans with monthly phone service. The nation's "Lifeline Assistance Program" was launched during the presidency of Ronald Reagan after the courts broke up the AT&T monopoly. It costs the government nothing and is worth preserving.

Lifeline has had bipartisan support over the years. The Telecommunications Act of 1996, signed by President Bill Clinton, reaffirmed the commitment to universal service. It established a "universal service fund" into which all telecommunications companies pay, assuring that remote rural areas, schools, libraries, rural health providers and low-income Americans get affordable phone service.

As technology evolved, so did the Lifeline program. During the presidency of George W. Bush, the program expanded so that low-income households could choose wireless service.

That, oddly, is what is under fire.

Boehner has railed against "giving folks free cellphones," a misstatement of how the discount policy actually works.

Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., has a bill (H.R. 176), co-sponsored by Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, that would ban cellphone service from the Lifeline program. People would have to stick with landline service, even as the world increasingly is going wireless.

To be clear, low-income Americans do not get a "free government cellphone," or as Rush Limbaugh phrases it, an "Obamaphone," through the Lifeline program. They get small discounts, say 250 free minutes every month or a discounted monthly plan.

Certainly, companies may offer free or deeply discounted phones to win customers. That's no different for wealthy wireless customers than for lower-income customers. Sprint, AT&T and Verizon routinely offer free or discounted phones to lure people to sign up for their services.

Lifeline works. In 1984, 80 percent of low-income households had telephone service, compared with 95 percent of non-low-income households. With Lifeline, that 15 percent gap had narrowed to 4 percent in 2011.

Lifeline provided discounted phone service to 1.6 million California households last year. Four companies are now approved to offer wireless Lifeline plans in the state: Telscape, Assurance, Reachout and Cricket.

The misbegotten House Republican attack on a program that has no impact on the federal budget is puzzling, to say the least. The idea of universal service – phone service in every home from sea to shining sea – is as worthy a goal in 2013 as it was in 1934.

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