A panel of state and federal regulators will make a recommendation today to the Federal Communications Commission on whether the agency should require states to implement a special form of discount telephone service for the poor and elderly.
Congressional sources said yesterday that the Federal-State Joint Board, a committee composed of both FCC officials and state regulators, is expected to reject a broad federal "lifeline" program that would require phone companies to offer a miniumum of local phone calls at a reduced price to low-income customers.
Instead, the panel is expected to recommend that the FCC extend a waiver, already in place, which allows states to exempt low-income consumers from paying the $1 monthly fee for access to the telephone network, congressional sources said.
Currently, the FCC waives half of the $1 fee if states are willing to waive the other half. The panel will recommend increasing that amount to cover the entire access fee as long as the states agree to reduce local rates an equal amount. The funds for such a waiver would be obtained from consumers' long-distance telephone bills, sources said.The FCC asked the seven-member panel to make recommendations by early October. A final decision is expected by the end of the year.
Lifeline proponents have been urging the commission to adopt a broader federal lifeline program that would require states to set up some type of discount for local telephone rates.
"From what we understand of the program today, it's patently unacceptable," said Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.), who has introduced a bill to require phone companies to subsidize local phone rates for those least able to afford them. "A waiver of the access charge does not constitute a lifeline program," he said.
"Over one-quarter of the households below the poverty line already lack phone service, and this waiver will do nothing to help these people," said Gene Kimmelman, legislative director of the Consumer Federation of America. "Without a broad lifeline program, the fifty-year congressional commitment to affordable phone service will be destroyed."
For some members of Congress and several consumer groups, the telephone lifeline issue has become a high-priority political issue. They argue that increasing numbers of the poor and elderly cannot afford the higher rates that have been approved since the breakup of the Bell System.
The members of Congress who have been pressuring the FCC said they would rather not seek a legislative solution, but they have indicated that they would do so if the FCC takes no action on the lifeline issue.
"If the regulatory agency that has been directed [by Congress] to preserve reasonably priced phone service fails to adequately deal with the problem, hearings by the Special Committee on Aging or other legislative action will be appropriate and necessary," said Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, yesterday on the Senate floor.
There is no statistical evidence yet that the poor are giving up their phones. But lifeline proponents argue that increasing rates soon will force them to do so.
Marie Wilson, a 71-year-old District resident who is on Social Security, is considering giving up her phone because of the increasing rates.
Wilson said she needs her phone to keep in touch with her children in New York and her elderly parents, but she isn't sure she will be able to keep paying her $18 monthly phone bill. "My monthly phone bill keeps going up and up," said Wilson. "My daddy is 94 years old and lives in North Carolina and my mother is 91," Wilson said. "I don't know what I'm going to do."