Starting this morning, many low-income households in D.C., Maryland and nine other states will become eligible for help with one of the problems raised by deregulation of telephone service -- higher installation fees.
Households that have had no phone for at least three months and meet income criteria similar to those needed to get public assistance will be able to get a one-time credit for half the phone installation fee up to $30, program officials say.
Financed from charges for interstate long-distance calls, the federalprogram is intended to cushion low-income people from the new rate structures, under which fees for local service and installation have risen quickly while long distance fees fell.
Federal officials estimate that about 5 million households could qualify for the program, despite repeated commitments to universal service by both government and industry. Sponsored by the Federal Communications Commission, the program is supposed to move the country significantly closer to that goal.
Virginia is one of several more states seeking to join the program, dubbed Link Up America.
"It has long been our goal at the FCC to assure that we do not evolve into an information society of haves and have-nots," said commission chairman Dennis Patrick at a press conference yesterday to announce the new program.
In D.C., C&P now charges $31.57 for a simple installation that involves only a technician plugging a phone into an existing jack and the company turning on the service. In Virginia the fee is $38.50 and in Maryland $48.00.
At the start of 1984, the fee in D.C. was $9.00. Installation fees have risen rapidly in the past few years as the result of deregulation and of phone rates intended to make the price of each type of service reflect its cost.
The Consumer Federation of America, the American Association of Retired Persons and AT&T have found that rising fees for installation are a significant barrier slowing down the spread of phone service.
Under the new program, states will be allowed to cover the other half of installation fees if they choose. So far none have committed themselves to do so.
D.C. Mayor Marion Barry, who attended the introductory press conference, said the city hopes to cover that cost. "We intend to be very vigorous in trying to see if we can't get it in this year's budget," he said.
D.C. and Maryland residents interested in taking part can contact C&P. If they qualify, the credit will be subtracted from their bills.
The other states beginning the program today are Maine, Montana, Rhode Island, Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas, Ohio, Texas and most of New York.
Link Up America is the second government program to help low income people with their phone bills. With federal help, 19 states provide some form of so-called Life Line Service, giving qualifying residents a break on their monthly bills.
D.C. has such a program limited to people age 65 or older; Maryland has one without an age limit. Virginia has applied for one. Phone companies are endorsing the program because they are reimbursed for the discounts and they get more customers. In D.C., for instance, about 94 percent of households have phone service.
"If we are able to add another point or two, it adds value to the whole base," said Phil Campbell, president of Bell Atlantic, C&P's parent.