The Ohio House of Representatives
Testimony on House Bill 49 - Lifeline Assistance for Low-Income Telephone Consumers
Michael Smalz, Ohio Poverty Law Center
James Williams, Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel
Michael Walters, Pro Seniors, Inc.
Noel Morgan, Communities United for Action
Ellis Jacobs, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc.
March 30, 2017
Hello Chair Smith, Vice-Chair Ryan, Ranking Minority Member Cera, and Members of the Finance Committee. Thank you for this opportunity to testify. The Ohio Poverty Law Center is a statewide law office that pursues statewide advocacy to protect, enforce and expand the legal rights of low-income Ohioans. The Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel represents the interests of 4.5 million Ohio households regarding their electric, natural gas, telephone, and water utility services. Pro Seniors was founded in 1975 as a non-profit organization dedicated to providing legal and long term help to Ohio seniors. Communities United for Action is a nonprofit multi-issue community organization, based in Cincinnati, that brings together almost 50 local organizations and institutions representing a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds and economic levels, with particular emphasis on working class neighborhoods in Cincinnati’s Millcreek Valley. Advocates for Basic Legal Equality is a nonprofit public interest law firm that represents low-income people in 33 Ohio counties. We respectfully recommend a change in House Bill 49, regarding financial assistance for low-income telephone consumers, to ensure that flat rate telephone service (unlimited local calling) continues to be available to them.
This assistance service is called “Lifeline,” and helps make basic telephone service affordable to low-income Ohioans. In this regard, these consumers typically cannot afford the more expensive service offerings of local telephone companies. The consumers who take Lifeline service are the poorest of the poor among our fellow Ohioans. They often can afford little more than food and rent. But they, like many, need phone service for the various imperatives that are understood for 21st century communications. For information about low-income challenges in Ohio, please see the attachments to this testimony showing recent data about poverty and food insecurity across our state.
Proposed language in H.B. 49 would amend Ohio Revised Code 4927.13(A)(1)(a), which describes Lifeline service. (Lines 69746 to 69747.) The current language in the Bill would remove the reference that phone companies in Ohio should offer Lifeline service to low-income consumers at a flat rate. Flat rate service is a traditional mainstay of voice service and should be especially assured for low-income consumers. Flat rate service means unlimited local calling without extra charges for usage. Allowing charges for local usage (such as by minutes of use) could adversely affect low-income Lifeline consumers in Ohio by increasing the amount they pay for local phone service.
The federal rules (47 C.F.R. §54.400(m)) require Lifeline service to be voice telephony, which includes “minutes of use for local service provided at no additional charge to end users.” Flat rate service should be protected for Lifeline consumers under Ohio law. The proposed change to Ohio Revised Code 4927.13(A)(1)(a) would remove the concept of flat rate service for Lifeline customers from Ohio law. That proposed change should be rejected and the current law should be retained.
We understand that an explanation for this change and another related change (presented in testimony to the House Finance Subcommittee on Agriculture, Development, and Natural Resources) was that the changes would make Ohio law consistent with federal standards. But Ohio’s current law (that H.B. 49 would alter on lines 69746 to 69747) is not inconsistent with the federal rule, as quoted above regarding flat rate service.
Accordingly, please see the proposed amendment, attached to this testimony, to amend H.B. 49. The proposed amendment would retain the existing Ohio law that is protective of flat rate service for Ohioans using Lifeline.
Thank you again for this opportunity to address utility consumer issues affecting Ohioans.