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Pardon my excitement, but I can now telephone from my home in Carrabassett Valley to North New Portland for free.
That would save me a lot of money if there was anybody in North New Portland I wanted to talk to. Unfortunately, there isnít, mostly because there arenít all that many people in North New Portland. In fact, North New Portland isnít even a real town. Itís part of the economically depressed Somerset County municipality of New Portland, which suffers from some sort of naming malfunction, since it isnít a port. So while calls there are toll-free, my new phone connection is of no use in ordering fresh haddock.
Nevertheless, I ought to be making lots of calls to North New Portland, just so I can get my moneyís worth. Hereís why. Even though my telephone company, TDS Telecom, has been kind enough to add that area to my local calling district, itís also charging me an extra $4.50 a month for this unrequested courtesy. That represents an increase in my basic bill of 37.5 percent, not to mention itís almost a nickel for every new phone line I can reach.
No offense to North New Portland, but thatís no bargain.
Iím not the only Maine resident whoís been granted the privilege of free calls to places they didnít need to reach, in return for exorbitant increases in their phone rates. Almost everybody who lives in rural parts of the state served by rinky-dink phone companies has been given the same shafting. In China, where FairPoint New England has the monopoly, phone bills nearly doubled, increasing by $9.00 a month. In Upton, Oxford Telephone has been granted a rate hike of $7.99. Bar Mills residents, who mail their payments to Saco River Telephone, got hit to the tune of $6.66.
In contrast, urban dwellers saw almost no increase, or, if they did, it was in exchange for a significant expansion of their calling areas. Verizon customers in Augusta and Waterville are paying less than a buck extra each month to be able to phone each other toll-free. They can now reach more new people than there are in my entire local calling area.
Incidentally, all the prices Iíve mentioned are for whatís called "premium" service. The phone companies are also offering an "economy" program, under which my rates would jump a mere 25 percent. But if I opt for that, Iíd have to dial an extra seven digits before every long-distance call. In other words, itís less convenience for more money. And I wouldnít get free calls to North New Portland.
Obviously, this problem isnít just another example of the inherent greed of my neighborhood telecommunications conglomerate. A screw-up of this magnitude has to have been caused by something bigger and nastier.
Such as state government.
A few years ago, the Legislature was getting complaints from businesses about in-state long-distance rates. In some cases it cost more to call Caribou than California. Companies were threatening to leave Maine unless something was done.
The reason rates were so high was because the state Public Utilities Commission had structured costs to keep local calling as cheap as possible. "For years and years and years, long-distance customers were subsidizing local service," said Steve Diamond, a PUC commissioner. "The Legislature made a decision to change that."
In addition, legislators decided to end the long tradition of rural service that allowed people to call almost no one for free. Under the new rules, people in adjacent towns would fall into the same local-calling area. Thanks to these changes, I can now call places like the New Portland town office (which was closed when I tried) without running up my phone bill.
Except my phone bill is being run up, anyway. And Iím not getting much in return for the added cost.
"Your phone bill isnít driven by how many customers you can call," said Diamond. "Itís driven by the cost to a particular area. Itís more expensive in thinly populated, rural areas."
Of course, phone service in the boondocks could be considered less valuable than that in the city, since thereís nobody to call. But thatís not the way the PUC looks at it.
Instead, the state is mandating that the price of a business phone in my town increase from $18 a month to $30, a whopping 67-percent hike. While the bill is still less than the $36 the same line would cost in Portland, itís fair to say a business phone in the stateís most populated burg is worth considerably more because of its potential to reach 30 times as many people for free.
State officials spend an inordinate amount of time blathering about their commitment to helping areas of Maine with high unemployment rates and low job prospects ó areas such as, say, North New Portland. But their actions in setting phone rates speak so much louder than their words that no phone line is needed to hear them.
Which is fortunate, because if it were, we wouldnít be able to afford it.
Calling me costs too much (unless you live in North New Portland), so email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Politics and Other Mistakes archive.
Issue Date: December 5 - 11, 2003
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