ISSUE BRIEF: What would you do without your phone?Submitted by Cheryl Tue Dec 13 2011 14:39:00 GMT-0500 (EST)
What if you had to choose between food and a phone? Heat? While many of us are fortunate enough not to have to make those choices, in these difficult economic times, a daily choice between essential needs is the daily reality for many. The United Church of Christ's historic media and telecommunications advocacy ministry is trying to make that choice a little bit easier for those in difficult straits. These issues are of critical interest to the civil rights communities and everyone concerned about income equality in the U.S.
At the same time that today millions of Americans rely on smart phones for everything from playing Angry Birds to staying in touch with the office, some Americans are making the choice between falling off the grid and putting food on the table. While telephones are not an essential need like home or nutrition, telephones are a critical element of national security--connecting us to critical services like 911. They are also an important element of civic engagement and economic security: without a telephone, it is impossible to call your congressman, your child's school, and most important, is impossible to get a job or access to support services when you are unemployed. In particular for people who are balancing child care and multiple jobs, a mobile phone can make an essential difference.
Unemployment is a critical issue for the civil rights community -- while the current unemployment rate is 8.6 for all Americans, but 15.5 percent for African-Americans and 11.1 percent for Hispanics. Disabled Americans suffer from 13 percent unemployment according to the latest figures. To climb out of these difficult circumstances, people need to use every possible asset, from telephoning potential job prospects, to managing child care, to using unemployment insurance or food stamps to get by while looking for work. None of these are possible without a phone, and today the Internet.
Fortunately, the U.S. has a pretty successful program to ensure that Americans who need a phone can get one--it is appropriately called "Lifeline" and it is run through cooperation by the states, telephone companies and the federal government. Families earning below 135% of poverty, or $30,172 for a family of 4, are eligible. The benefit on average is $10 per month, which is paid directly to the telephone company on behalf of eligible households. The program is vastly underutilized, but still it reaches 10 million people each year. This program is one of the smaller part of a broader communications policy called "universal service" which ensures people in rural areas, schools and libraries and rural health care providers get access to affordable telephone service. The Lifeline program for low-income people is one of the smaller programs, however, comprising only about 15 percent of the total universal service allocation at $1.2 billion annually (as compared with the 4.5 billion spent on rural telephone access).
Right now the Federal Communications Commission, which runs the program, is considering changes and reforms. It has already taken steps to ensure that Lifeline recipients are not mislead by telephone companies seeking to receive duplicate benefits for duplicate services. Unfortunately, the Commission is also considering capping the fund, even though it only reaches approximately 30 percent of eligible households. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, including many civil rights leaders, have asked the Commission not to cap the program.
In addition, the FCC is considering updating the program so that it applies not only to telephone service, but also to modern broadband technology. Because while a telephone is part of a job-seeker's arsenal, the Internet is becoming equally essential. Many employers, such as McDonald's and Wal-Mart take only online applications for job applicants, and five states offer unemployment benefits only online. The FCC itself has found in its National Broadband Plan that broadband "Access to broadband is increasingly important for all Americans to actively participate in our economy. Broadband can serve as a platform for educational, economic and social opportunities. It can also minimize economic disparities." At the same time that the Commission recently updated the much larger universal service program geared toward rural areas, it is unclear whether low-income people will be left behind. United Church of Christ and its allies have weighed in with FCC Chairman Genachowski to update the program and expand it to broadband as recommended in the National Broadband Plan. While the Chairman originally planned to complete reform by the end of 2011, reform now looks to occur in early 2012.
These issues are critical for equity in all aspects of our lives -- from personal security to competitiveness in jobs and education. The civil rights community is unified behind a need to ensure all Americans and children can access essential technologies to keep our nation competitive in the information age. We urge the Federal Communications Commission to push ahead and for interested legislators to weigh in to ensure that this essential program is not left in yesterday's technology.