The downtown public library, a bastion for the curious and people experiencing homelessness, has added a new feature to help folks on the margins: Free telephones.
The two phones, installed on Aug. 14 in the shiny metal wall adjacent to the downtown library’s auditorium and restrooms, represent one of the last public facilities left for people to place a call. They cost $400 each.
Anybody who comes to the library is free to use the phones, said Karen Spiel, downtown regional manager for Seattle Public Libraries, but the staff hope that the new facilities will be of use to the library’s homeless patrons.
“We were concerned about the scarcity of public phones,” Spiel wrote in an email. “We know this is a vital need, especially for our houseless patrons, or anyone who finds themselves without a phone, and needs to make a quick call.”
People experiencing homelessness are as reliant on phones as any housed person, perhaps more so. People have to call in to remain on waiting lists for housing and check in with shelters at night. The directory to connect people to services — 2-1-1 — is available by phone.
The phones are limited. Users are restricted to 10-minute calls to local numbers — numbers with the area code 206 and some 425 and 253 numbers — and while patrons can make calls, they cannot receive them.
“We hope this works well, and that our patrons find it useful,” Spiel wrote.
According to the Pew Research Center, 95 percent of Americans have a cellphone, and 77 percent own a smartphone, and the sheer ubiquity of these mobile devices pushed out other public-access technologies, like the payphone. The library had two payphones, but it was difficult to keep them operational because they couldn’t get serviced, Spiel said. But having access to a cellphone isn’t helpful if you can’t afford minutes or lack a place to charge the device. There are very few public places where homeless people can charge devices without the added burden of purchasing a drink or food, and fewer that are available at night.
In an age of instant and constant communication where the topic du jour is about limiting screen time and life coaches preach the gospel of “unplugging,” it’s easy to forget that cutting ourselves off from the world is a sign of privilege.
People living in poverty may not have consistent access to a phone — something they need to maintain employment, keep medical appointments or get into housing. If they do have a cellphone, it may not be a smartphone, limiting their ability to communicate with service providers, family or friends.
The federal government does provide assistance to low-income people who need it through the Lifeline program, a means-tested effort that works with telecoms and internet providers to hook people up with a cellphone and a barebones plan or a subsidy for broadband internet.
These devices, maligned by conservative radio hosts, are sometimes called the “Obamaphone,” because the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) beefed up the program, ensuring that participants received a smartphone able to access WiFi and had the option to instead sign up for broadband internet service, under President Barack Obama.
It’s not much — folks can get about $9.25 a month toward their phone plans or internet service. Assurance Wireless, which operates in Washington, translates that into 350 minutes of talk, unlimited texts and one gig of data each month.
If that’s not enough to get by, consumers find themselves purchasing additional minutes from their carrier.
Even so, the Lifeline program is a mainstay for low-income households. According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the program gave out $1.5 billion in subsidies to 12.3 million households in 2016. But the program has come under fire.
In the same report, the GAO warned of the potential for waste and fraud. The program requires more than 2,000 carriers, private companies that are incentivized to sign up clients. When the GAO did a check of 3.5 million Lifeline households, auditors found that they could not confirm if 1.2 million of them participated in another qualifying program, such as Medicaid, government health insurance for low-income households.
Just months after that report came out, newly elevated FCC Chairman Agit Pai announced that the commission would consider a massive overhaul of the program. The new rules, headlined “Bridging the Digital Divide,” included suggestions like implementing a benefits cap and, most controversially, banning smaller telecoms called “resellers” from participating in the service.
Resellers are companies that provide phone service but don’t have physical telecoms infrastructure of their own. Instead, they buy extra capacity from the larger players such as Sprint. Mignon Clyburn, a former FCC commissioner who resigned in May, warned that prohibiting resellers would cut 70 percent of Lifeline users off from their current carriers, forcing them to find new ones.
The reaction to the proposal was swift and overwhelmingly negative. One proposal — eliminating a $25 per month subsidy for rural tribal residents — is currently the subject of a lawsuit.
The outcry caused the FCC to pause, said Angela Siefer, executive director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a group that fights to expand internet access and digital literacy.
“All of the ‘sky is falling’ people made the folks who were going to put the changes in place hesitate to put the changes in place,” Siefer said.
The FCC could move forward with the changes if it wanted to, Siefer said, and there’s little trust in the Republican-majority commission. The group didn’t initially back off of the proposal when it was told about the potentially dire consequences to millions of Americans, she said.
“I don’t think anybody is letting down their guard,” Siefer said. “That’s more because the current FCC leadership has already shown that they think the best solutions are not based in what’s best for the consumer.”
For now, at least, the Lifeline program will remain intact and people who use it can continue to go on about their business. But if someone needs to charge a phone, check their email or simply runs out of minutes at the end of the month, the downtown library will be there to fill in the gap.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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