AUGUSTA, Maine — If national studies hold true for Maine, one in 10 people has only one phone, a cell phone. Public Advocate Richard Davies is worried that as that number increases, some Mainers in need of basic “lifeline” phone service will not be able to afford it.
“We have been very successful with the lifeline service,” he said, “but that is a program of the PUC [Public Utilities Commission], and they have regulatory authority over the land line phone service in the state. They do not regulate cell phones.”
That program provides up to a $13.50 a month subsidy for basic phone services and up to $30 to partially defray any installation charge. It is paid for by a fee assessed on phone service.
“As we see more people move away from using land lines, and only using a cell phone, my office is concerned there are people that may not have access to any sort of phone service,” Davies said.
Under the PUC program, those who qualify for food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the Emergency Assistance Program or the Home Energy Assistance Program also qualify for the phone subsidy.
Davies said while some cell phone companies voluntarily participate in a similar program, it is not mandatory. He said there are currently no companies in Maine that offer such a program, although his office has been in talks with one pre-paid cell company interested in participating.
“As people shift to wireless service, the question is can they access that service at an affordable price,” said PUC Commissioner Vendean Vafiades. “That is very much a concern of the commission.”
She said regulators need to keep up with changing technologies that Mainers are using to communicate. But, she said, there are limits to what the PUC can do when it involves cell phone service.
“The Federal Communications Commission has pretty much pre-empted us,” Vafiades said.
But, she said, current law allows wireless providers to access federal universal service funds. Those funds, generated from a monthly fee on phone bills, can be used to expand access and subsidize programs like the lifeline service. She said only one wireless company in the state is participating in that program, but is using the funds to build capacity in rural areas of the state, not a lifeline service.
“I think the companies do not want all the paperwork involved with the federal program,” Davies said. “It would take a change at the federal level to make sure there is a lifeline service available.”
The trade association for the wireless phone industry, CTIA, supports establishment of lifeline services. Jackie McCarthy, its director of state regulatory affairs, said the association has testified in support of expansion of the universal service fund.
“We are definitely in agreement with the state public advocate in that lifeline services should be available to users as they use different telecommunications services,” she said.
McCarthy said she does not know why only one company operating in Maine has joined the federal subsidy program.
It may not be optional in the future, if U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, has her way. She said cell phone companies are licensed by the federal government to use scarce radio frequencies and have an obligation to operate in the public interest. She serves on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of telecommunications issues.
“One way or the other,” she said, “we should ensure that action is taken, by the Congress of the FCC, because these services are vital.”
Snowe said that as more Americans have a cell phone as their only phone, access to public safety and emergency services are jeopardized if lifeline service is not available on any phone. She said access to telecommunications is not the luxury it was in the past and is now an absolute necessity in modern society.
There is broad agreement among members of Maine’s congressional delegation on the issue. Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree of the 1st District said there is no question lifeline service should be provided by all phone providers, land line or wireless.
“Most of us feel like we already pay quite a bit on our cell phone bills, and there are a lot of extraneous charges that everyone wonders where they come from,” she said. “So I think it is very reasonable to ask the cell phone companies to take this on all by themselves.”
Snowe is hopeful that with new members on the FCC, the agency will require lifeline service on its own and not force Congress to require that change in policy.