Pay phone deregulation

October 15, 1997|By Robert Reno

THE GLORIES of telephone deregulation are embracing America like the warm, enfolding arms of a grizzly bear.

It all began when the courts ordered the dismemberment of the Bell System in the mid-1980s. It intensified with the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Last week, it flowered with news that the 35-cent local pay phone call, that unimaginable benefit to all Americans, might soon become universal. The blessings of the 50-cent call could come next year. The quarter call is surely dead.

Now let us ask ourselves: Who are the people most likely to patronize a pay phone?

They would include the homeless, people who can't afford a telephone in their home and people who can't afford a cell phone. But even if you're not concerned about the shiftless poor, most-likely pay phone users include a little girl trying to tell her parents why she's not home and not to worry, a mother late to pick up her children, some wretch who ran out of gas and walked five miles for help.

Of course, people will still be able to call 911 without using any coins.

Or will they? Anything might happen in this new, unregulated world where any company can put up a pay phone and turn what used to be a public service into a lactating cash cow.

Who could imagine a more miserable class of people for Congress to be beating up on? But, as a result of the 1996 act, most pay phones in the U.S., which now require a quarter, are expected to demand a quarter and a dime or a quarter and two nickels.

Doesn't sound like much, but Congress could have said honestly in 1996 that it was, in effect, hiking phone fees by 40 percent.

I've heard the industry lectures about how pay phones don't make any money for the companies. But it isn't just the money. Requiring two or three pieces of silver instead of one makes the entire phone system less user-friendly. It makes it vastly more likely that unfortunate people will get stuck somewhere without the right coins.

And even if you think it's a minor issue, it is just one more of a ghastly number of changes that are making the phone system either costlier, more irritating or more unintelligible to people who grew up under the Bell System, presided over by that once-benign monopoly, the American Telephone & Telegraph Co.

Another ''benefit'' of deregulation is that you never know whether your directory assistance operator is an underpaid, badly trained person in a town 3,000 miles from the place you're calling. This is another giant leap for humankind from the 1996 act.

It has resulted in thousands of bizarre -- but true -- cases in which people trying to call the White House have repeatedly been given the number of an inoffensive Washington dentist whose name is Dr. Susan Whitehouse, or in which poor souls trying to reach New York City Hall have regularly been given the number of a pool hall called the City Hall Billiard Club.

Other callers are being told that world-renowned universities do not exist or that, sorry, there is no listing for the "State of Louisiana" in Baton Rouge.

Well, don't expect things to settle down as deregulation matures. A guy named Bernard J. Ebbers is bidding to buy MCI, the second-largest long-distance provider, and, with his other interests, put together what almost looks like an instant version of the old AT&T. It would offer long-distance and local service across the United States. The proposed deal has caused both Wall Street and the industry to hyperventilate with fear and amazement.

The deregulated telecommunications world has only begun to take form and it is still a crapshoot whether it astonishes us with the benefits of competition more than it bewilders us with life-complicating incomprehensibility and revenue-enhancing nonsense.

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

Pub Date: 10/15/97

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