Down East 2013 ©
Call it the law of unintended consequences. Even as cellular telephones become the ubiquitous telecommunications accessory, capable of doing everything except walking the dog, and earlier communication device is becoming increasingly rare — the pay telephone. According to Wayne Jortner, senior counsel in the Public Advocate’s Office at the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC), the number of pay phones in Maine has dropped from 8,200 in 1998 to 6,500 today, and the decline continues even as he tries to stem the loss.
Jortner points out that not everyone owns and carries a cellphone, and people still depend on pay phones to make emergency calls and stay in touch with friends and family. At the same time, he recognizes that Verizon, which owns almost all the pay phones in Maine, can’t be expected to subsidize the ones that don’t bring in enough revenue to support their costs. In fact, federal law says they can’t subsidize unprofitable pay phones — a rule implemented in pre-cellphone days when the federal government was trying to encourage competition in the pay phone business. Seems almost quaint now, doesn’t it?
“We think pay phones remain an important resource for people,” Jortner explains, recalling the call he received recently from a gentleman who routinely depended on a particular, and rather remote, pay phone on the North Haven shore of the Fox Islands Thoroughfare in Penobscot Bay. A boat would drop him off at the spot, and he would call a taxi to get home. Except the last time he was dropped of, the pay phone was gone. It was a long walk.
Verizon is quick to note that it has no plans to eliminate all pay phones. But it has sent letters to municipalities around Maine notifying them that some local pay phones are being removed and offering the communities the chance to buy and maintain the phones themselves as a public service. Jortner is asking the PUC for a temporary halt on pay phone removals while it looks at various options for retaining them around the state. It may be like trying to save hitching posts.
(Published November 2002)