[Rushtalk] More California stupidity: Free cellphones for homeless

Carl Spitzer Winblows at lavabit.com
Tue Jan 15 11:33:49 MST 2013


 

 
PUC set to OK free phones for homeless

Kevin Fagan

Updated 11:33 p.m., Sunday, December 9, 2012

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        William Locke of San Francisco, who uses a wheelchair, wears his
        cell phone around his neck and says he could really use the
        money he would save with a low-cost or free cell phone plan.
        Photo: Carlos Avila Gonzalez, The Chronicle / SF
      * http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/PUC-set-to-OK-free-phones-for-homeless-4104121.php#photo-3867734
      * http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/PUC-set-to-OK-free-phones-for-homeless-4104121.php#photo-3867736
      * http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/PUC-set-to-OK-free-phones-for-homeless-4104121.php#photo-3867735
 




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Homeless and other poor people in California are on track to soon get
virtually free cell phones and service so they can keep in touch with
family, potential employers and others crucial to improving their lives.

The cell phones would be handed out through a federally funded Lifeline
program - already operated by service provider Assurance Wireless in 36
other states - that is likely to win final approval in the next couple
of weeks from the California Public Utilities Commission.

State PUC officials have been reviewing the Lifeline proposal from
Assurance Wireless for three years. Word came Thursday that all but a
minor detail had been approved, ending years of effort by advocates for
homeless people.

"This is great - it is transformative for homeless and low-income
people," said Bevan Dufty, San Francisco's head of homeless initiatives,
who has been one of the program's most ardent advocates. "I expect San
Francisco to be in the forefront and a model city for this program.

"Fundamentally, to be in the mainstream of our society you have to have
a phone," he said. "And really, for the homeless population, you need a
cell phone because they don't have a home to hard-wire one into. We
really need this plan."

Dufty said if the program launches as expected, it would greatly help an
initiative he is trying to start that would let the homeless call a 311
number to find out where and when a shelter bed is available. This would
reduce staff work and save the homeless hours of waiting in line and
walking miles between booking offices.



Dialing into services

"This cell phone program is an exciting change for homeless people and
for the state of California," said Jennifer Friedenbach, who as head of
the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness also urged approval. "If you
don't have a phone, you can't hear if you are on a waitlist for housing,
if the housing authority needs to contact you or if an employer needs
you. It's crucial in order to get off the streets."

Brittney Ames, a homeless 24-year-old, needs a cell phone but can't
afford one.

Having a phone would enable her to take callbacks from the restaurants
where she's applied to work as a waitress, she said. And she'd love to
be able to regularly talk with her family in Orange County.

"I can't stay in touch with everyone I need to, especially for the most
important thing of all - getting a job - without a phone," Ames said as
she sat outside the Multi-Service Center South homeless shelter in San
Francisco where she stays. "But with no money, I can't get one."

The state's decades-old Lifeline program, like those all over the
country, pays for all but a few dollars of the monthly phone bill for
poor people, generally meaning those whose annual income is below
$14,702. But until now, California's PUC rules only authorized Lifeline
service for "wireline" phones, meaning traditional phones wired into
residences - and those rules didn't authorize anything for free.



Getting set up not easy

Setting up the program in California has been no easy task,
officials said.

"This is a new, particularly complicated product," which requires
intricate attention because it ripples through many regulations,
said Bill Johnston, a CPUC telecommunications expert who helped evaluate
Sprint's proposal. "It's not something you can do overnight."

Approval of the cell phone program came Thursday from the
telecommunications specialists at the CPUC, which oversees the state's
Lifeline plans.

All that is left now is final approval of the language Assurance
Wireless - an arm of telephone giant Sprint - will use to promote the
program. That should take one or two weeks and no wrinkles are expected,
said officials with both Sprint and the CPUC.

"We're very excited," said Jayne Wallace, an Assurance Wireless
spokeswoman. "We know from experience this can make a big difference in
people's lives."

The need for changing the rules has become obvious even to
Sprint's competitors.

AT&T spokesman Lane Kasselman said landline usage by California's phone
customers, regardless of who supplied the service, plummeted 43 percent
between 2000 and 2010. Cell phone subscriptions during then shot up
123 percent.



Cost of program

Some 560,000 Lifeline home phone customers in California have dropped
their service since 2009, Kasselman said, leaving 1.6 million users
still in the program. He believes the drop is largely due to people
exclusively using cell phones.

Assurance Wireless first offered its free cell phone proposal to the
CPUC in 2009 and got tentative clearance in 2011. It has been a slow
process since.

Under Assurance Wireless' new program, a customer will initially pay $20
for a Virgin Mobile cell phone and pay 10 cents a minute. This initial
plan will fulfill state regulations that only people with existing phone
service qualify for a Lifeline program.

Immediately, however, the customer will be rolled into Assurance
Wireless' Lifeline plan, which will provide 250 free minutes of talk
time and 250 free text messages per month. The customer will then get
the initial $20 back as a credit to be used whenever he or she exceeds
the talk and text limits.

"I would prefer it to be free, but this at least opens the door," said
Dufty. He said he would explore if other funding sources could backfill
the up-front $20 charge.



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