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April 6, 2014
Editorial: State's Lifeline phone service goes wireless

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(April 6 — By the Editorial Board)

California marks the 30th year of the its Lifeline phone program this month, ensuring that lower-income Californians can get affordable phone service.

In this anniversary year, the California Public Utilities Commission has extended the Lifeline program beyond landlines to include cellphone service.

California should have a high bar as it considers which wireless companies to enter the California Lifeline market. The state shouldn't authorize fly-by-night providers out for a quick buck.

Telscape Communications, the first company approved for wireless service in the state Lifeline program, has a strong track record of service in California.

Others, not so much. For example, the commission approved Budget PrePay, which provides the Budget Mobile service, to offer wireless Lifeline plans in California in January. A month later, this company was among those fined by the Federal Communications Commission for seeking reimbursement for duplicate lines in Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Wisconsin.

The FCC fined Budget Mobile more than $3.7 million on Feb. 28 for "willfully and repeatedly" violating the rules.

Commissioner Catherine Sandoval has championed the move into Lifeline cellphones, so lower-income Californians have the same access to phone service that most of us take for granted. More than 90 percent of Americans now have wireless phone service.

The action ensures that lower-income Californians will be able to stay in touch with family and friends and be able to call in emergencies, the same as everyone else.

It's a national commitment, which dates to the Communications Act of 1934, which declared the goal "to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, a rapid, efficient, nationwide, and worldwide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges."

After the breakup of the AT&T phone monopoly, President Ronald Reagan and Congress in 1984 launched the national Lifeline phone program to guarantee phone service to lower-income Americans. In 1996, Congress established a universal service fund into which all telecommunications companies pay to make phone service affordable for all.

Through Lifeline, lower-income families can get small discounts on phone service, say 250 free minutes every month or a discounted monthly plan. As with most phone service in a competitive environment, companies may offer free or deeply discounted phones to win customers.

As the commission considers applications from wireless companies for the Lifeline program, it needs to track actions by the FCC and other states.

It should make sure that prepaid wireless phone companies seeking to enter California's Lifeline market, like TracFone Wireless, which is owned by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, commit to pay the state the same fees that other cellphone and traditional landline companies do, making the Lifeline discounts possible.

Poor people deserve access to modern communications. In 2014, that includes cellphone service. State regulators understand that. But they also need to make sure providers have a clean record of service, and that new entrants into the California market pay their fair share so the Lifeline program can continue.