April 09, 2020

Maine utility regulators OK public phones as safety net

AUGUSTA – Mainers in more than 40 locations who were stranded without a line to the outside world when telecommunication companies removed many of the pay phones in the state soon will regain access through a network of public-interest pay phones.

State utility regulators have approved 42 applications for so-called PIPs in areas where there’s a demonstrated public health, safety or welfare need. Users will be able to make free local calls and emergency calls, such as 911, the Public Utilities Commission said Thursday.

They also will be able to use calling cards or operator assistance for collect long-distance calls, the PUC said.

Many of the phones will accept incoming calls.

The Legislature approved the public-interest pay phone program last year, after telecommunication companies removed many of the pay phones in the state. Demand for pay phones dropped sharply as cell phones exploded in popularity.

But many people were left without access to phone service, said Town Manager Ruth Marden in Jay, a town of 5,000 and one which was chosen for PIP service.

“I’ve had a few people say ‘I miss the pay phone,'” Marden said Thursday.

Cliff Island, a few miles from Portland, also will get a PIP. Residents objected after the local pay phone was removed, saying cell coverage was spotty. A lack of dependable phone service, they said, could create a dangerous situation in the event of a medical emergency or fire.

Borrowing an idea used in New Hampshire and other states, state Rep. Herbert Adams, D-Portland, sponsored a bill calling for PIPs in specially designated areas were they are most needed. The bill was enacted last year.

The PUC selected 42 locations based on the public health, safety and welfare needs of those who will use the phone, availability of wireless service and the average income of the area.

“It’s a service that [can be used] if they need to make a doctor’s appointment and don’t have a phone, or need to make an appointment for a child and don’t have a family,” Jay’s Marden said. For those and others, “this is going to be an extremely valuable service.”

The state is seeking bids from phone companies interested in providing the service, which will be covered by a $50,000 state fund that also helps rural telephone providers.

Installation of PIPs is expected to begin by the end of the year. Recipients include some of the tiniest towns, such as Wytopitlock, islands and one location in Bangor. A full list of the approved PIPs is on the Web.

The list is divided into two tiers, with those in the top group getting priority for funding.

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