This past June marked the twelfth anniversary of the iPhone. First released in the summer of 2007, the touchscreen smartphone fundamentally changed the way we create, consume, and purchase new products, information, and innovations.
The invention of the smartphone was especially transformative for one group of Californians: people who are deaf or have a disability which makes using a traditional phone difficult. Yet despite being invented in California, some of the people who need it the most are still missing out on taking advantage of this technology.
That’s because the California Public Utilities Commission has a well-intentioned program to provide free specialized telephones with features that make it easier to hear and to dial for deaf or disabled Californians. But under the program, the CPUC still doesn’t support hearing- and vision-impaired people accessing the iPhone, arguably the most important accessible technology device ever invented.
By now, an iPhone isn’t new or luxury technology: it’s a standard piece of equipment, and the technology is 12 years old. Money is collected from all consumers and is supposed help disabled consumers get the newest technology. And for more than a decade the PUC has failed to update its program to include the most obvious choice.
This is just one example of the leisurely pace with which the CPUC responds to new technology. It’s an illustration of why we need to keep our Legislature in charge of internet technology, and not allow the CPUC to take over that role. Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez introduced a bill, AB 1366, which keeps the Legislature’s oversight in place. This policy benefits millions of consumers.
It’s worth looking at why hasn’t the CPUC chosen to allow smartphones for public funding. Even early smartphones featured dramatic improvements to once nascent technologies including functions such as text-to-voice, VoiceOver, and accessibility shortcuts. But the CPUC—burdened by bureaucracy and protracted proceedings—continues to run tests, pilot programs, and waste time while funding aimed at expanding digital opportunity goes nowhere.
The fact is the CPUC was never intended to help consumers get access to technology. Established in the 19th century to approve pricing by railroad monopolies, the state’s regulatory body can take years—even decades—to enact regulations. Indeed, the CPUC president, Michael Picker, has admitted as much, saying that “technologies tend to change, faster than we can actually respond.” The CPUC’s latest foray into the world of technology was to try to tax text messages, a proposal that caused a national public outcry.
California’s leaders recognized these limitations when they decided to keep internet policy in the hands of the state legislature and away from the CPUC.
California has a track record of fostering innovation, protecting consumers, and expanding digital access to rural and disadvantaged communities. Our Legislature can move faster and react more effectively to this progress.
Now we must protect that progress. AB 1366 continues California’s internet policy and takes new steps to protect consumers. Failing to extend this policy will press the pause button on useful internet-based services that benefit millions of consumers. There is no reason why deaf and disabled consumers should have had to wait 12 years for the iPhone. Just as there’s no reason to give the CPUC more products and services to delay 12 years.
Stuart Waldman is president of the Valley Industry & Commerce Association (VICA), which works to enhance the economic vitality of the greater San Fernando Valley region by advocating for a better business climate and quality of life.