Yes, I’m starting off this blog post with a picture of a quarter. You see, every month when my phone bill comes, it includes a 25 cent surcharge for Universal Service programs. If you have phone service, you pay that 25 cents (or something close to it), too.

  • If you have an old-fashioned wireline plan, or a wireless plan or a digital phone plan, you pay that quarter.
  • If you don’t have a Social Security number, you pay that quarter, the same as if you had one.
  • If you are an individual with limited English proficiency, you pay that quarter, just like everyone else does.

All of those quarters go to ensure that low-income Californians have access to affordable phone service through the state’s LifeLine program. LifeLine is a critical part of our social safety net—without phone service, low-income consumers can’t find work, reach health care providers, contact emergency services, or talk to their friends and families. LifeLine has greatly advanced our goals of ensuring that everyone has access to affordable telephone service.

However, LifeLine has been in need of an upgrade for a few years now. Even though we’re more and more dependent on wireless phones, the California program didn’t allow eligible consumers to use the LifeLine discount for wireless services. Individuals without Social Security numbers weren’t eligible to participate in the program, even though people without Social Security numbers still pay into the program. Additionally, limited English speakers who signed up for LifeLine found themselves unable to get customer service or technical support because providers didn’t have customer service reps who spoke the customer’s language—even though the provider’s sales rep did.

This week, in a unanimous decision, the California Public Utilities Commission instituted a long-needed and sometimes hard-fought set of changes to the LifeLine program. LifeLine- eligible customers can now apply the discount to wireless service. They will soon be able to sign up for LifeLine even if they don’t have a Social Security number (there are still some implementation details to work out). And if they sign up for service in, say, Spanish, their carrier has to provide customer support in Spanish. All of these advances will increase participation in the LifeLine program and provide economic and public safety benefits to everyone in California. And most importantly, everyone will be able to call their grandmother on her birthday, which might seem like a little thing, but boy is it a big thing when you can’t do it.

Despite these enormous societal benefits, the Commission (as well as Greenlining, The Utility Reform Network, the Center for Accessible Technology, and the National Consumer Law Center) faced some very fierce opposition to these changes—often from policymakers that you’d expect to support the new rules. Consumer groups didn’t get everything we wanted—for example, we pushed hard for a requirement that any wireless LifeLine plan offer unlimited minutes and texts, but the Commission chose not to impose that requirement. But as a whole, the new and improved LifeLine program was an enormous victory for Greenlining and, more importantly, for consumers.

There’s still a lot of work to be done, and issues to work out. For example, the Commission couldn’t settle on rules allowing VoIP (that is, Internet-based telephone) providers to participate in the LifeLine program. VoIP, along with wireless, is the future of telephone service, and there are a number of VoIP providers who are ready and eager to start providing LifeLine service to their customers. This Commission’s going to address this issue (and a handful of other issues) in the next part of the proceeding—what we wonks call “Phase II.” I’m hopeful that the Commission will be able to implement rules that benefit low-income VoIP customers as much as this current decision benefits low-income wireless customers.

When I pay my telephone bill next month, that Universal Service surcharge will be the best twenty-five cents I’ve ever spent.