New fee for cellphone bills heads to Senate

Cellphone users pay nothing toward the Universal Service Fund, which helps subsidize phone service for rural communities and poor households.

A proposed new fee on cellphone bills is headed to the floor of the state Senate despite some senators’ objections that they needed more time to understand what it would fund.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Luke Rankin, R-Myrtle Beach, said the fee would go toward the Universal Service Fund, which helps subsidize phone service for rural communities and poor households.

The money subsidizes building new landlines and maintaining old ones, and it’s important to cellphone users, proponents say, because cell towers are connected by physical cables. Rankin said it’s unfair for landline customers to pay for the fund’s upkeep while cellphone users pay nothing.

“You’re not raising a tax. You’re equalizing a tax,” Rankin said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 15-6 to move the bill to the full Senate.

Landline bills currently include a 2.7 percent fee. The Senate proposal is a 1.1 percent charge for landline and wireless customers alike. Many wireless companies have said they oppose charging their customers a new fee.

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The complexity of the phone system and the fund raised concerns among senators who said they didn’t fully understand what they were voting on.

“I’ve got a bunch of questions, but I don’t even know what they are,” Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, said.

The Judiciary Committee agreed that the $31 million-a-year fund needs better oversight and approved an amendment that would let the state perform random audits on it.