An AT&T logo is displayed on an AT&T Wireless retail store front, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
Erika Delgado cut her landline service last December. She had cycled through four different companies since 2000, with each company charging her for calls she didn’t make, services she never signed up for and things she thought were included in her contract. After five years with Pacific Bell, Delgado moved to Verizon because it offered her discounted rates for weekend calls and other services. Though she qualified for Lifeline, a discount program designed to provide basic telephone service for low-income customers, a landslide of unexpected fees and overcharges soon overwhelmed her.
“They say they’ll give you discounts, but it’s not true,” says Delgado, a 40-year-old single mother of three children living off of the $850 a month she earns from her business selling clothes and electronics at the Mt. Vernon Swap Meet in San Bernardino, California. “They just charge, charge, charge.”
Delgado cut her service with Verizon after just a year and a half and moved to AT&T. She decided to enroll in a $20-a-month plan that included long-distance calling, an important feature because she frequently makes calls home to Mexico. But after making two fifteen- to twenty-minute calls to Mexico, she was slapped with a $90 charge for the calls. She says AT&T then told her that her plan did not cover long distance to Mexico, and that $200 would cover the cost of the calls and the additional fees.
“I had to choose to either feed my kids or pay the bill,” she says. The company sent her to collections and she cut service with AT&T after just six months.
Now, with a mounting collections bill on her credit report, Delgado doesn’t even consider moving away from her mobile home or applying for a job that requires good credit. She has also given up entirely on getting the landline service she needs at home. Sometimes her cellphone doesn’t get a signal in her home, and when she can’t afford the electricity bill, she has no way to charge the battery. “I am a single mom and my kids have asthma,” she says. “In case of an emergency with my kids, I need reliable telephone service at home to call 911.”
Delgado’s decade-long struggle to find affordable and reliable telephone service is not unique. Her story, and the plight of millions of other low-income people, are at the heart of a debate between civil rights groups and public interest advocates who find themselves at opposite ends of a debate about what rules, if any, should prevent companies like AT&T from exploiting consumers like Delgado.
In November 2012, in anticipation of moving its telephone service from traditional, wired networks to IP-based phone networks, which transmit voice communications digitally, AT&T filed a petition with the FCC to run test trials of IP-based telephone services. In exchange for expanding these networks, the company is requesting “relief” from critical regulations that apply to wired telephone services. These regulations, which include obligations to provide universal service and state-enforced price and quality regulations, do not currently apply to IP-based telephone service. The petition has garnered critical responses from many public interest groups, including Free Press, the Center for Rural Strategies and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which are concerned that relaxing these regulations will allow telecom companies to avoid regulating IP-based phone services, leaving them vulnerable to price gouging and poor service quality, with weak access for communities of color and rural residents. (For more about the AT&T petition’s potential impact on underserved communities, click here).