An estimated 117,000 Mainers were enrolled a year ago in the Lifeline program, which offers discounts to low-income households for either landline or wireless telephone service. Current estimates are tricky, for reasons having mostly to do with a Federal Communications Commission requirement that all enrollees be recertified as eligible each year.
A consumer from Piscataquis County wrote to Northeast CONTACT after discovering that she was no longer receiving a Lifeline discount on her phone bills. She was also being billed for the first time for Fairpoint Exchange Values (Fairpoint is her service provider) and federal line charges.
When she called Fairpoint, our consumer was told she needed to be certified for Lifeline discounts; previously, eligible Mainers simply stated that they were qualified and they were added to the Lifeline program. Our consumer talked with a couple of service representatives and was given what she felt was conflicting information about which documents she needed to provide. Her latest bill included past due charges, an amount she had been told to deduct when discussing her previous bill with Fairpoint representatives.
Then, she wrote to us. After a bit of research, we found that Fairpoint – and to a lesser extent the other 20 or so companies that offer Lifeline discounts – had been receiving a number of complaints about de-enrollment from the program. The Maine Office of the Public Advocate got involved, and last Wednesday the office’s senior counsel, Wayne Jortner, met with Fairpoint representatives and Susan Cottle, the deputy director of the Maine Public Utilities Commission’s Consumer Assistance Division.
Fairpoint had sent notices last fall outlining the FCC’s new enrollment rules. At Wednesday’s meeting, Jortner voiced concerns from consumers who said they either had not received the notices or, believing they were “junk mail,” had thrown them out.
Then, there’s the matter of multiple benefits. The FCC rules allow one benefit per household; if a family currently gets Lifeline discounts for wired and wireless phone services, that’s a no-no. Recipients must choose one service and provide documentation to their phone company that they’re eligible.
“We want everyone who’s eligible to have access to benefits, but the rules clearly forbid multiple benefits,” Jortner told me after Wednesday’s meeting. He also said Fairpoint is considering upgrading the training of its customer service reps so they don’t give conflicting information; Jortner described that as “a problem that Fairpoint needs to work on.”
Jortner also said he suggested that Fairpoint “seriously consider” giving courtesy credit to customers who were hit with late fees for failing to enroll “on time.” Customers of other companies will also get an assist from the Public Advocate. According to Jortner, “We will bring the matter (of courtesy credit) to the various phone companies’ attention.”
Jeff Nevins, a spokesman for Fairpoint, said company representatives left Wednesday’s meeting with a lot to think about. Nevins said Fairpoint customers can call him at (207) 535-4170 or e-mail email@example.com for help in enrolling. It’s expected that the Public Advocate, PUC and Fairpoint will talk further as another wave of enrollment continues to year’s end. It’s not clear what changes might take place when required annual recertifications follow.
Cottle of the PUC told me, “We’re here to help people who have problems with their utilities.” She added that it’s very important that consumers have tried to work with their utility first. You can find more about the PUC’s Consumer Assistance Division by calling (207) 287-287-3831, toll-free at 800-452-4699 and online ( http://www.maine.gov/mpuc/consumer/index.shtml).
A program called Link Up provides benefits to eligible low-income consumers living on Tribal lands. The FCC has a consumer guide at its website ( http://www.fcc.gov/guides/promoting-telephone-subscribership-tribal-lands-0).
The FCC has more information about eligibility and how to apply for Lifeline and Link Up benefits, visit the Universal Service Administrative Company’s website, call USAC’s toll-free number (888-641-8722), call the FCC’s toll-free customer service number (888-CALL-FCC), or contact your local telephone company.
Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.