19 Dec Lifeline Program off of Life-Support
During the Reagan years, Congress created the Lifeline program because they knew that if we were going to begin to defeat poverty in this country, the poor must be brought into the mainstream; and in 2005 the program expanded to cover cell phones.
So when the Georgia Public Service Commission voted 3-2 for Georgia to become the first state to charge low-income residents $5 a month for what is now free cellphone service, I saw it as an set-back rather than an assurance for the poor, elderly, and undeserved to have access to basic communications.
Citing fraud and abuse in the federal cellphone program, commissioners Everett, Echols and Lauren “Bubba” McDonald voted for the fee, while commissioners Chuck Eaton and Stan Wise voted against it.
CTIA, a national association of wireless companies, countered by suing the PSC, saying the decision is illegal because state government agencies cannot regulate what wireless companies charge customers. Today, a federal court issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting Georgia utility regulators from charging low-income residents $5 a month for basic cellphones.
The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia issued a Preliminary Injunction halting implementation of a new Georgia Public Service Commission rule that would have required Lifeline “Eligible Telecommunications Carriers” in the state to bill and collect a minimum monthly rate of $5 or to provide a minimum of 500 minutes per month to Lifeline customers. This minimum rate rule was adopted by the PSC on October 15 and would have become effective on January 31, 2014.
Ultimately, the court found that the requirement to bill and collect a minimum monthly service rate of $5.00 per month is clearly a rate regulation preempted by section 332(c)(3)(A) of the federal Communications Act, which provides that “no state or local government shall have any authority to regulate the entry of or the rates charged by any commercial mobile service.”
Although highly unlikely, the PSC could appeal the injunction order, but for now, the $5 minimum rate rule will not take effect. Today’s order by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia marked a victory for wireless phone companies, participants in the Lifeline program, and advocates like myself who are against depriving the most vulnerable and poorest Georgians of the ability to contact emergency services.