Where are all the payphones? - Page 7

Deregulation and industry greed are wiping out a form of old technology that's a critical lifeline
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The division proposed a formal workshop or survey to compile data about profits and costs, locations, and demographics — hard data on where pay phones exist and where they don't but are needed.

The DRA also suggests that regulatory oversight be overhauled; that the PUC exert closer control over pay phone service providers by imposing fines or through disconnection; that pay phones be registered or certified, as they are in numerous other states; and that new procedures be adopted for installing and removing pay phones.

Oversight is needed, the division says, even if the industry can't pay for it; it recommends a surcharge on monthly phone bills, as there are for other public policy telecom programs. It also says an overdue audit of both programs is needed and that the hotline-triggered inspection regimen needs to be reassessed within 12 to 18 months of its inauguration last fall.

SAVING PAY PHONES

On the ground floor of San Francisco's City Hall, a single pay phone remains among six phone bays. Under existing subsidy rules, the city — which contracts for multiple phones — is ineligible for a subsidy.

It seems like high time to figure out how to restore some conventional lines of communication. Instead of shifting the whole cost of backup phones to the public, why not consider allocating it between the industry and ratepayers, placing the industry's contribution on a sliding scale to be reviewed every year or two along with revenues, and even incorporating a percentage of more competitive telecom video and cable profits?

Admittedly, this goes against the current tide. Avid deregulators — like former PUC commissioner Susan Kennedy, now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's chief of staff, and current commissioner Rochelle Chong — have aggressively promoted advanced technology and less oversight.

But is what's good for AT&T and Verizon really good for ratepayers or small businesses? Letting the pay phone network — a real, decentralized public space — be dismantled just because many of us now have private cell phones violates fairness and common sense. Corporate-minded advanced-tech boosters may dismiss the older technology, but it serves everyone.

"Just because it's old," TURN's Nussbaum said, "so what?"<\!s>*

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