Almost 33 years ago, I authored legislation that established the “Moore Universal Service Act.” The bill created the California LifeLine Program to ensure that all Californians would have access to telephone service.
At the time the law was enacted, traditional landline phone service was the only option for residential consumers. But with the advent of iPhones, Skype and other technology, how we communicate is changing dramatically.
Yet the state’s Universal Service and communications policy hasn’t kept up with the telecom revolution. It remains focused on traditional landline phone service. It has left the poor, seniors, those with disabilities and rural citizens on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Nearly one in seven Californians doesn’t use the Internet. These are the people who are being failed by traditional Universal Service. Why doesn’t California help hearing- and vision-impaired people purchase Internet Protocol-enabled smartphones, tablets and other devices? Because the state’s program for people with disabilities requires using outdated devices and technology that can’t access the Internet.
Why can’t low income consumers use Lifeline subsidies to pay for broadband or voice-over-the-Internet? Because California has not advanced policy changes to keep up with technology, it is virtually a “phones only” program that largely ignores the existence of the Internet.
In 1983, when we first took the then audacious step of declaring that everyone from all walks of life should have equal access to technology, traditional telephones were dominant. That’s why Universal Service started out phone-centric. Why, three decades later, hasn’t that changed?
More than 85 percent of California traditional telephone lines have disappeared in favor of smartphones, voice-over-Internet and broadband. We need to get serious about expanding digital opportunity. Access to “plain old telephone service” isn’t enough. The next obvious step in improving access for all Californians is to assist all consumers in moving from outdated telephone service to Internet-enabled technology.
Assembly Bill 2395 authored by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, establishes a plan to do just that. The legislation contains state-level customer education, voice service, backup power and 911 requirements. These are in addition to protections at the federal level that will address access for people with disabilities, 911 and reliability.
While there were initial concerns that some consumers might be left without choices, the latest version of the bill ensures that no consumer – rural or urban – will lose access to a traditional landline until he or she gets access to newer technology.
It’s time for the Legislature to swiftly pass AB 2395 and the Public Utilities Commission to modernize Universal Service. Now is the time to move forward and tackle one of the most important challenges of the day: putting new technology into the hands of those who – without taking steps to update state policy – will continue to be denied access to the life-changing technological advances that exist in today’s communications marketplace.
Gwen Moore, former member of the state Assembly, chaired the Utilities and Commerce Committee. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org