Pay phone calls going to 35 Bell Atlantic says competitive pressure forced 1increase

November 13, 1997|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

Got a quarter for a phone call?

Thanks. Now how about a dime?

Bell Atlantic, the dominant operator of pay phones in Maryland, announced yesterday that it is increasing the price of a local pay phone call in the state from 25 cents to 35 cents. The process of coverting Bell Atlantic phones to the new rate began immediately, but will not be completed for several months. Rates for long-distance calls will not be affected, the company said.

There are no plans to equip phones to make change for two quarters.

Bell Atlantic is also introducing the 35-cent rate in Washington, D.C.; Delaware; Virginia; West Virginia; Pennsylvania; New Jersey; Vermont; and New Hampshire. Pay phone calls will remain at 25 cents for now in the rest of the Bell Atlantic market -- New York, Rhode Island, Maine, Massachusetts and a small part of Connecticut.

The company cited competitive pressure as the reason for the rate increase. Independent pay phone operators have sprung up nationwide. In order to add phones to their networks, the companies must pay commissions to the owners of restaurants, airports and any other property where they seek to offer pay phone service. As competition increases, so do the commissions.

The costs of this competition are increasingly being passed on ++ to the consumer. The Federal Communications Commission deregulated the industry last month, freeing phone companies to increase pay phone rates. "The government decided that this is a competitive marketplace, and we have to behave like competitors," said Bell Atlantic spokesman Jim Smith, who called the new rate "the fair market price."

Some consumer advocates find it odd that competition is leading to an increase rather than a reduction in prices.

Assistant People's Counsel Theresa Czarski said, "As an office this is something we always consider strange, that in a market that is supposed to be competitive the first response is to raise rates."

Many independent operators have already opted for a 35 cent rate, or are about to do so. Deborah Bishop, vice president of Delmarva Toll Call in Bishopville, said her company was going to the 35 cent rate for most of its 276 Maryland phones, and would eventually charge the new rate at all of its locations.

"You don't want to surprise people; you don't want to raise rates too much," she said.

According to Bishop, vandalism is another factor forcing pay phone operators to raise rates.

"People mostly get mad at the person at the other end and break the handset," she said, but she added that some vandals go much further: one paradoxical result of increasingly secure pay phone money boxes is that frustrated thieves simply take the whole phone off its mounting and work on the money box at home.

Bell Atlantic says its share of the pay phone market varies from 65 percent to 90 percent per state.

Public Service Commission spokeswoman Chrys Wilson said, "Normally when we get an increase of that sort we see an increase in consumer complaints."

If that's true, expect near-anarchy in New England: The Bell Atlantic decision means a 250 percent increase for Vermont residents, who have been paying a dime for a five-minute call since 1955. Calls have cost 20 cents in New Jersey and a quarter in the other states and Washington.

Brother, can you spare a ...

+ Pay phone rates in Maryland

Before 1952 ..... 5 cents

1952-1977 ....... 10 cents

1977-1984 ....... 15 cents

1984-1985 ....... 20 cents

1985-1997 ....... 25 cents

Sources: The Public Service Commission, Bell Atlantic.

Pub Date: 11/13/97

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