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Phone booth call now 35 cents

November 12, 1997

Phone booth call now 35 cents

By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

Staff Writer

Without a telephone line of his own, Hagerstown resident Scott Huff said he relies on pay telephones to make most of his calls.

"Or I use my mom's phone and give her a quarter," said Huff, 31, who figures he'll have to raise that to 35 cents to be in line with Bell Atlantic's new local pay phone rate.

The telephone company announced Wednesday that it was hiking its local pay phone rate from 25 cents to 35 cents in eight states and Washington, D.C., beginning immediately.

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The first increase since it raised the rate from 10 cents to 25 cents in 1985, it will affect all Bell Atlantic pay phones in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, said Bell Atlantic spokeswoman Sandra Arnette.

Other areas affected by the increase are Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, Vermont, New Hampshire and Washington, D.C.,

Bell Atlantic pay phones will be adjusted for the new rate over the next few months on their normal collections schedule, Arnette said.

The increase, recently allowed under new Federal Communications Commission rules deregulating pay telephones and local calling prices, is necessary if Bell Atlantic is to compete with other companies offering pay phone service, she said.

Independent pay phone providers in the region began raising their rates to 35 cents as soon as the deregulation went into effect on Oct. 7, Arnette said.

Because telephone companies have to pay a commission to whomever owns the place where they put a pay telephone, Bell Atlantic needed to raise rates if it were to pay competitive commissions and keep their sites, she said.

Federal regulation has kept the rate artificially low for some time, forcing the company to absorb the increased cost of installing, maintaining and collecting from its pay phones, Arnette said.

Theresa Czarski, of the Maryland's Office of People's Counsel, said she couldn't speak on whether the rate increase is justified.

But it contradicts the contention that deregulation benefits consumers by forcing companies to compete for customers, Czarski said.

"This is an unfortunate example of what happens in a deregulated market," she said. "It's always strange to me that in a quote, unquote competitive market, one of the first things to do is raise the rate. You would think it would go the other way."

There's merit to Bell Atlantic's argument that pay phone providers have to compete for sites, said Philip McClelland, assistant consumer advocate in Pennsylvania's Office of Consumer Advocate.

When it comes to using a pay phone, you should shop around, but it's not always feasible, especially in remote areas, McClelland said.

"When you go to find a pay phone, most of the time you're going to find one pay phone or multiple pay phones from the same company," he said.

Under deregulation, companies can charge whatever they want for a local pay phone call, which means consumers could end up seeing an even higher rate in the future, McClelland said.

While the new deregulation means the price isn't capped at 35 cents, Bell Atlantic has no plans for another increase any time soon, Arnette said.

"We think, right now, 35 cents is a fair market price. We think it's one consumers are willing to pay," she said.

Hagerstown resident Donna Turner said she doesn't use pay phones often, but she has no problem with the 10-cent hike.

"I think it's cheap for a phone call, a quarter, though. Thirty-five cents is not bad," Turner said.

Though he'll probably have no choice but to pay the higher rate, Scott Huff said he's not going to like it.

"I think it's ridiculous. A quarter's bad enough. It used to be a dime when I was a kid," Huff said.

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