The Ohio Senate
Finance General Government and Agency Review Subcommittee
Testimony on Sub. H.B. 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, attorney for Communities United for Action
Ellis Jacobs, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc.
May 23, 2017
Hello Chair Jordan, Vice-Chair O’Brien and Members of the Finance General Government and Agency Review Subcommittee. Thank you for this opportunity to testify. We respectfully recommend a change in Substitute House Bill 49, lines 78047 to 78048, regarding financial assistance for low-income telephone consumers. Our proposed change would preserve existing law which ensures that flat rate telephone service (unlimited local calling) continues to be available to them. The consumers who take this service, known as Lifeline service, are the poorest of the poor among our fellow Ohioans and they should continue to have the required protection of unlimited local calling at a flat rate for this service. We therefore oppose the change to the law that is proposed in Substitute H.B. 49 regarding consumers’ Lifeline service.
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.
Proposed language in H.B. 49 would amend Ohio Revised Code 4927.13(A)(1)(a), which describes the program for financial assistance to low-income telephone consumers. (Lines 78047 to 78048.) 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 for unlimited local calling. Flat rate service for unlimited local calling is a traditional mainstay of residential voice service and should be especially assured for low-income consumers. Flat rate service means unlimited local calling without extra charges for usage. Allowing telephone companies to charge 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.
Lifeline service 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. Consumers who qualify for Lifeline service 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.
We understand that an explanation for this change and another related change (presented in PUCO testimony to this Subcommittee) was that the changes would make Ohio law consistent with federal standards including low-income wireless service standards. But Ohio’s current law (that H.B. 49 would alter on lines 78047 to 78048) is not inconsistent with the federal rule, as follows. The federal rules (47 C.F.R. §§54.400(m) and 54.401(a)(2)) require Lifeline service to be voice telephony, which includes “minutes of use for local service provided at no additional charge to end users.” These words, for minutes of use at no additional charge, allow for flat rate service. Further, the current law and the proposed change in H.B. 49 regarding flat rate are about landline service, not wireless.
Accordingly, please see the proposed amendment, attached to this testimony, to H.B. 49. The proposed amendment would retain the existing Ohio law that is protective of flat rate service for low-income Ohioans using Lifeline.
Thank you again for this opportunity to address this utility consumer issue affecting Ohioans.
James Williams et al.