Coin-phone owners due inspections Independent operators soon will be required to check each other.

November 08, 1991|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Evening Sun Staff

Under pressure to maintain the quality of their service, independent operators of pay telephones in Maryland are beefing up a self-inspection program in cooperation with the state Public Service Commission.

Starting Dec. 1, the owners of the 3,825 independent pay telephones in the state will be required to have their phones inspected annually by the Middle Atlantic Payphone Association by an agency other than the owning company.

The customer-owned, coin-operated telephones, or COCOTs, were first allowed into the general market in 1987 and grew from 2,198 phones to 3,825 by the end of 1990, making up about 10 percent of the pay telephones in the state. The rest are owned by the Bell Atlantic Corp. and its local subsidiary, Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Co. of Maryland.

There are 534 COCOT owners, with 484 of the companies owning five or fewer phones each. The 10 largest companies own 78 percent of the phones. The largest company, Atlantic Telco of Beltsville, owns 1,604 pay phones, or 42 percent of the COCOTs. The next largest owner is U.S. Payphones of Washington, which has 489 phones.

In 1988, about a year after the independent pay phones began operating, the PSC did a survey of some of the phones and found a high incidence of violations, according to Jerome D. Scheer, president of the MAPA. Shortly afterward, MAPA

was formed and the pay phone companies started developing a self-inspection program.

Late last year the 20 members of MAPA, which control 3,600 of the state's independent pay phones, began inspecting each other's telephones. They are inspecting about 200 a month and all of the phones will be inspected by the end of the year, Scheer says. "There is a lot of cooperation and everyone is pitching in," he says. "They made an investment, they want to make sure it's right."

Under the program, a MAPA member's phones are examined by inspectors working for another MAPA member -- in other words, one of its competitors. If the phone passes a checkoff list of requirements, a sticker certifying inspection is placed under the telephone.

Scheer, who is also chairman and chief executive officer of Atlantic Telco, says the program has caught the attention of other states. He says California and Florida have adopted variations of the plan and New York is looking into it.

So far, the program has been voluntary, but on Dec. 1 the independent pay phone operators will be encouraged by state law to join the MAPA system.

By that day, the operators must either join MAPA and become part of the mutual inspection program, or contract with another company to inspect their phones. That inspection firm must also approved by the PSC.

While there is no requirement that the pay phone operators join MAPA, "as a practical matter, a pay phone owner should seriously consider joining MAPA," says Scott Rafferty, director of telecommunications for the PSC.

"The driving force there is the industry," Rafferty says. "It wanted to clean up its reputation." A seminar on the new program will be held for pay phone operators Nov. 12.

While the plan does cover phones of companies that are in business, it does not yet have a way of dealing with phones that may be abandoned by defunct firms. Pay phone operators have had limited success in improving their bottom line.

Last month, the PSC turned down a request by MAPA to reduce the monthly rate charged by C&P for each pay phone.

The $15.16-per-phone monthly charge is $2.40 higher than what C&P charges business customers.

Scheer says MAPA spent $100,000 -- "a fortune" -- on the PSC hearings and finds it disappointing to be told to come back in the spring when the PSC considers an overall C&P rate increase.

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