April 08, 2020


Long ago, pay phones had a little glassed-in room with a seat and a shelf where you could write or place your change. A call cost a nickel.

Then they mostly were cut back to a little hood that offered some protection from rain and a bit of privacy. The price mounted to a dime and then a quarter. But you could usually find a phone when you needed to, at a gas station or a supermarket.

With the arrival of cell phones, the disappearance of pay phones swelled into a torrent. Most folks found it convenient not to have to look around for a pay phone and fish out some change. And the relative privacy of a phone call no longer seemed important. People got used to hearing one side of a conversation at a restaurant table or in a checkout line.

But the new communications order has left some people in the lurch. Maybe they find themselves in one of the many dead zones. Or maybe they can’t afford or just plain don’t like cell phones. Some people on Maine’s offshore islands feel especially deprived.

A 2005 Maine law now provides a chance of relief. The folks on Cliff Island in Casco Bay are the first to benefit from the “Public Interest Payphone Program” created by the legislature and set up by the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

As reported in the monthly newspaper Working Waterfront, when the islanders’ only pay phone was suddenly yanked without notice the were told that the only way to get it back was so pay the phone company $75 a month. They worked with their state representative, Herb Adams, D-Portland, to draft the bill. When the bill became law and the new system got started, they petitioned the PUC and got their phone.

Other communities can do the same if they meet the PUC’s requirements and compete successfully for a share of the limited funding. The commission weighs public welfare, health and safety considerations; cost of an installation; availability of wireless service in the area; residential telephone service penetration in the area; local average income, and financial ability of the applicant to provide public telephone service.

If a community passes those hurdles it can qualify for a free public phone. Local calls will be toll free, but long-distance calls will be charged. If someone else is waiting to use the phone, a call should be limited to five minutes.

Those Cliff Islanders are right. It’s a case of “democracy in action.”

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