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    Battling sides unite over phone bill subsidy plan

    By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 5, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- In the midst of a feud over raising phone rates, the battling sides appeared to come together Thursday to launch a program to recruit low-income Floridians into a program to subsidize their bills.

    AARP, other consumer groups and phone companies touted the merits of the Lifelink program, now used by only 134,000 of the nearly 1-million eligible in the state for discounted phone installation and monthly bills.

    AARP kicked off a national campaign outside the Capitol to get the word out about Lifelink. Also planned are neighborhood canvassing efforts, fliers, posters and mailings to 55,000 potentially eligible households.

    "Everybody should have access to quality telephone service at affordable prices," said Charlie Mendoza, AARP national board member. "For many people, including many older persons -- and especially those who are shut in -- the telephone is an essential link to the outside world."

    The Thursday launch has been in the making for a year, coincidentally taking place as consumer groups and phone companies are at odds over a bill to raise monthly bills for local service that is now in the hands of Gov. Jeb Bush.

    Supporters of the proposal, which would increase bills in the Tampa Bay area as much as $5 during the next five years, contend the increase would be offset by cheaper long distance charges within Florida. But consumer advocates worry that people who have only basic phone service and rarely call long distance would end up paying more.

    Consumers, reacting to weeks of negative publicity and editorials in newspapers throughout the state, have sent more than 1,000 e-mails and letters and made hundreds of calls to Bush.

    The bill (HB 1683) calls for more low-income Floridians to be eligible for Lifelink, which provides for a monthly discount of $12 for local phone charges and up to $30 for installation.

    Legislators tout the bill as consumer-friendly because it would make Lifelink available to 250,000 more people in Florida and would help contact them to let them know this program is available.

    Consumer advocates claim it would only marginally raise the number of people who are eligible.

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