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Telecom group intervenes as companies plan cell service for low-income customers

By: - April 13, 2023 4:40 pm

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Two companies are seeking permission from state regulators to provide discounted mobile phone service to eligible people across South Dakota under a federal program, but those plans are facing scrutiny from some existing telecommunications organizations in the state. 

On Thursday, the Public Utilities Commission authorized the South Dakota Telecommunications Association to intervene in a matter involving Dish Wireless, doing business as Gen Mobile, and GO MD USA Mobile. The two companies want to offer mobile phone service to low-income residents in the state, including on tribal lands.

The federal program, known as Lifeline, subsidizes discounted phone or internet services for low-income people. The two companies would be the first in the state to use those subsidies for mobile phone plans. 

Eighteen telecommunications organizations represented by the telecommunications association already offer the Lifeline discount for landline phones and internet service in rural areas. Because a customer can only use the Lifeline discount with one provider at a time, some customers could potentially have to choose between existing services and the new discounted mobile service.

Kara Semmler, the telecommunication association’s executive director, said her members have concerns about the quality of services customers might receive from the mobile providers.

“We want to ensure they are going to be able to actually provide the services they are advertising,” Semmler told South Dakota Searchlight.

To be eligible for the discount program, customers must meet income requirements or participate in federal assistance programs such as Medicaid or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Only one mobile phone per household would be eligible. 

GO MD USA Mobile filed a petition with state regulators on March 18. Dish Wireless filed a petition on March 29. The companies are petitioning regulators to be designated as Eligible Telecommunications Carriers in the state, which would allow them to provide the Lifeline service to qualifying consumers. The companies use the AT&T and T-Mobile wireless networks.

The companies would offer 1,000 minutes of talk, 1,000 texts and 4.5 gigabytes of data at a $9.25 per month federally subsidized discount, and unlimited talk, text and 11 gigabytes of data at a $34.25 discount for qualifying individuals living on reservations.

As an intervenor, the telecommunications association is now entitled to appear at hearings, present evidence to state regulators, submit briefs, make and argue motions and objections, and more.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with additional information since its original publication.




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Joshua Haiar
Joshua Haiar

Joshua Haiar is a reporter based in Sioux Falls. Born and raised in Mitchell, he joined the Navy as a public affairs specialist after high school and then earned a degree from the University of South Dakota. Prior to joining South Dakota Searchlight, Joshua worked for five years as a multimedia specialist and journalist with South Dakota Public Broadcasting.