Lonely pay phone symbolizes 30 years of industry that left it behind long ago

Staff writerApril 20, 2014 

It hangs on the wall of a major retailing establishment (think meatballs and assemble-it-yourself furniture), ignored and unused, bearing the name of a company no longer in business, a device that wouldn’t be any more of a historical curiosity if it were hanging on the wall of a museum.

But the pay phone — that’s right, they still exist — does serve at least one useful purpose, as a physical and visible totem of an anniversary that, to the extent anyone remembers or reflects on it, symbolizes just how dramatically things can change in industries that have operated with the same business model, and largely the same technology, for decades.

Here at the Institute for Round-Number Anniversaries, it’s our job to remember and ruminate on such events. Today we’ll consider the lessons and implications of 30 years since the breakup of AT&T, colloquially known as the Bell System or Ma Bell.

At this point we could introduce another of our occasional features here, Spot the Generational Differences. Those readers of the columnist’s vintage will nod knowingly at the references. Those considerably younger will be asking, “Ma who?”

And a recap of the events leading to the 1984 breakup of the Bell System won’t make much more sense to them, because the personal and business telecommunications system being broken up bears so little resemblance to what we use as a matter of routine for today.

For example: Your columnist, as a reporter for a newspaper in Charleston, W.Va., covered the rolling out of the revolutionary concept known as equal-access long-distance.

In the days of the AT&T monopoly, local service (through such companies as Pacific Northwest Bell, later to be known as US West, which morphed into Qwest – the name on that lonely pay phone, by the way – which is now part of CenturyLink, the folks with their name on the Seahawks and Sounders stadium) in most markets and long-distance was controlled by one company. In order to access an alternative long-distance carrier such as MCI, you first had to dial a number to connect with it, then the number you were trying to reach, and maybe an account number somewhere in there too. With equal access, no more extra digits. You dialed the number you were trying to reach, and let the network figure out what carrier you’d chosen and whom to bill it to.

MCI, the competitor that pushed the hardest to open up the phone system, disappeared years ago as a standalone company. So too has the phenomenon of getting two separate bills, one from your local telephone company, another from your long-distance provider (no wonder the paper industry has seen such declines in demand).

For that matter, the whole concept of long distance, not just as a separate service but as something expensive and rare, to be used only for special occasions or emergencies and even then sparingly, is a relic. Today long-distance service is typically wrapped into inclusive service plans, and dialing cross county is done as routinely and matter-of-factly as calling across town.

Then again, who knows what counts as a long-distance call these days anyway? With the proliferation of numbers for fax machines and mobile devices and the subsequent subdividing of the landscape into ever smaller area codes, every call seems to require 10 digits (you can tell the age of business cards lost in the bottom of desk drawers by whether there’s an area code in front of what is clearly a local number).

Even the idea of a “local” phone company has been reworked to the point of being unrecognizable to someone from 1984. The local phone company was almost always a part of a huge national company (i.e., AT&T, which by the way bears only faint corporate resemblance to the company of that name 30 years ago), but it operated with its own marketing identity and under local regulation, offering a specific menu of services.

Today companies such as CenturyLink and Frontier Communications operate more like national brands, and do so with much less price regulation from entities like the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission. CenturyLink customers recently got a bill insert advising them of rate increases effective May 1. In the old days, such increases would have required a lengthy rate case. No more.

Regulators took that action in recognition of the fact that mobile devices now provide competition to landline operators, as reflected in the dramatic plunge in the number of homes and customers connected by wire to the phone system.

The phone companies may be going the same route as the companies stealing their customers. AT&T is conducting a pilot project, authorized by the Federal Communications Commission, in Carbon Hill, Ala., and Delray Beach, Fla., in which new customers will get phone service via wireless connection or the Internet. If the projects work, expect the idea to spread geographically and to existing customers using existing technology.

That would consign the landline phone to the scrap heap — or museums — of obsolete technology even faster than current trends suggest it’s headed there. But that’s likely to provoke a shoulder-shrug, “oh well” reaction. We learned to live without paper directories and rotary-dial phones too; some never used them to begin with. Increasingly, when a call comes in to that lonely pay phone or that dusty landline, there’s no one to answer the query “Who’s there?” with “Not us, anymore.”

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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