‘Universal Service’ Will Now Include Affordable Calls for Prisoners’ Families

amalia deloney
Posted February 27th, 2012 by amalia deloney
In CMJ Home
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This Friday the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee (CAC) met for its Spring meeting.  For those unfamiliar with this committee, its purpose is to make recommendations to the FCC regarding consumer issues and to include the voices of consumers in proceedings before the Commission.   To ensure transparency the meetings are open to the public and are broadcast live with open captioning over the Internet from the FCC Live web page.

In large part due to the efforts of Joel Gurin, (former CGB bureau Chief) several MAG-Net groups sit on the CAC including Native Public Media and the Media Literacy Project.   We are joined by public interest allies including, Benton Foundation, the Consumer Federation of America and the National Consumer Law Center.  Together we’ve been working for over seven months on a range of issues including Broadband Adoption and Universal Service Fund Reform.

For CMJ, our selection for this committee meant a real opportunity to amplify the voices of historically marginalized communities and ensure that our unique communications needs were highlighted.  Knowing that we were joining the committee at the same time as other MAG-Net members meant we share a responsibility to take collective action on the issues that matter to the communities we serve, and should not shy away from pushing the committee to take-up a wider-range of justice issues.

Last week we had our first opportunity.

In the new business section of our agenda, CMJ introduced the idea of having the CAC address the cost of Prison Phone Calls—specifically the FCC’s role in regulating phone companies in order to favor competition.   Currently, these rules do not extend to the prison phone system, resulting in monopoly rates for incarcerated individuals (and specifically their families who pay for the calls).


Discussion starts around the 2:53 mark

It’s fair to say there was quite a bit of support for our idea.  Several organizations publicly stated their support, while others approached me during our break.  Each indicated that the “exorbitant rates” were a clear consumer rights issue, and one that disproportionately affected communities of color.

As we moved into our working groups, further support emerged.  My working group –the Universal Service Fund Working Group—voted to rename ourselves the Universal Service Working Group, and formally take up the issue of Prison Phone Calls within the context of “Universal, Affordable Access.”  Our group easily saw the issue as one that was intimately tied to poverty and communication rights.  Our Chair, Cecilia Garcia of Benton Foundation, announced our decision when the full CAC reconvened.

Within the next two months—we have plans to convene calls specifically on this issue and to develop equity-based recommendations that we will bring to the full CAC.  It is our intent to align our work within the FCC process with the amazing work that is currently happening outside the FCC—specifically the Prison Phone Justice Campaign led by our colleagues at Prison Legal News and Thousand Kites, as well as a wide-range of national Civil Rights and Public Interest Media organizations who are meeting monthly in DC to build a legislative strategy.

While the FCC may not be readily seen as an important contributor to the Social Justice Sector, those of us in the Media Justice Movement understand that it is.  We know that our work to build relationships inside the beltway has directly led to new partnerships with others to make meaningful impact.   Our presence on the FCC’s CAC is just one example of the ways that we can use new political and organizing solutions to address historical disparities.

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