Calling For Justice

Barriers old and new are keeping some communities from phoning home

| February 16, 2006

Cell phones, computers, and digital technology are making connections faster than ever, but not everyone is reaping the benefits. While people with computers can make phone calls for free using voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology, people stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide are being forced to pay higher premiums for making calls on basic landlines.

One group that's being hit hardest is prisoners and their families. Inmates in the United States are given little choice but to pay high fees when trying to connect with the outside world. According to Claudio Cabrera of Amsterdam News, many prisons have set up a single-service collect call provider as prisoners' only phoning option. This lack of competition is a financial boon for the phone companies and the prisons, and a financial drain for families of prisoners who are forced to pay markups of 630 percent.

The justification for this 'backdoor tax' is that it helps pay for the nation's under-funded prison system, including medical care and visiting services. The New York Campaign for Telephone Justice, an organization combating such monopolistic policies, believes that the charges are doing more harm than good. The organization suggests that one of the keys to successful rehabilitation is keeping in touch with friends and family, and exorbitant phone costs are preventing many inmates from doing just that.

The specter of higher calling costs is reaching beyond prison walls to other communities. As Angela Carter of the Journal Register News Service reports, a controversy has erupted over proposed fee hikes by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Kevin Martin. Many have suggested that the proposed payment plans would disproportionately affect low-income and elderly phone users.

Citing the dwindling long-distance phone market, Martin proposed a shift in contributions to the Universal Service Fund (USF) -- the program set up to provide affordable phone services to low-income households. As it stands now, contributions to the USF are based on usage; those who make more phone calls pay more money. Under Martin's plan, there would be a flat fee based on the number of telephone lines in a household. Keep USF Fair, a collation fighting the FCC plan, estimates that the fee change would add up to $383 million to the bills of 16 million households of mostly low-income and elderly individuals, while high-usage customers like big businesses would catch a break with lower costs.

Keep USF Fair already has sent over half a million emails and letters to leaders in Washington, and the group's been joined in the fight by Consumer Action and the League of United Latin American Citizens, which says the fees will hit Latinos who rely on pre-paid cell phones disproportionately hard. As Linda Sherry, director of national priorities for Consumer Action told the Journal Register News Service, the FCC is trying to balance the phone budget 'on the backs of the consumers who use long-distance the least and are least able to afford phone bills.'

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