More Californians Can Access Discounted Phone, Broadband Service through New Law

October 11, 2021

SACRAMENTO – As part of his final action on bills from the 2021 legislative session, Governor Gavin Newsom this weekend announced he signed into law Senator Ben Hueso’s (D-San Diego) bill to ensure more low-income Californians have access to discounted phone and Internet service through the Lifeline Universal Telephone Service Program (California LifeLine Program).

The California LifeLine Program is a state program that provides discounted home phone, cell phone and broadband services to eligible households. When the program was established in the 1980s, it was meant to ensure that low-income consumers could access essential home phone services. As a result, the program has historically permitted only one program subscription per qualifying household. Of course, since the program’s establishment, personal telecommunications have expanded, and there has also been a long-term increase in the number of Americans living in shared residences. The California LifeLine Program has expanded over the years to incorporate the advances in telecommunications technology, including now supporting cell phone and broadband access; however, the program has not updated its definition of an eligible household to address the increasing number of adults living in shared residences. Sen. Hueso’s SB 394 clarifies that individuals with the same physical address can have separate California LifeLine Program subscriptions if they are separate economic units.

“Californians in shared households are also part of communities that have been the hardest hit by both the illness and economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Sen. Hueso. “The ongoing pandemic has demonstrated the extent to which telecommunications access is critical to participating in the economy and accessing a variety of essential services, including health care, education, and public assistance. As California continues to respond to Covid-19, providing the most vulnerable Californians with the resources to stay safe, stay connected, and recover from the impacts of the pandemic is critical to our recovery as a state.”

In 2012, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) modified the federal Lifeline program’s definition of a household. The FCC’s updated definition allows qualified adults living at the same address to each obtain a Lifeline subscription if they are separate economic units. The FCC’s updated household definition helped streamline eligibility across utility assistance programs, and it reflected the rising number of Americans living in shared residences. While the FCC has updated its definition of a household in federal regulations to reflect more complex living arrangements, California laws defining a household for the California LifeLine Program have not been changed.

SB 394 will conform the definition of a household for the California LifeLine Program to the definition used by the FCC to ensure Californians eligible for federal Lifeline assistance are also eligible for the state Lifeline program. This alignment will also improve and streamline eligibility requirements for multiple households sharing the same physical address, including foster children, individuals in transitional housing, senior citizens in assisted living residences, and households in tribal communities.

SB 394 was supported by the CPUC Public Advocates Office, Greenlining Institute, and The Utility Reform Network (TURN).