South Shore plays dialing for dollars – public phone rates vary |

South Shore plays dialing for dollars – public phone rates vary

Sarah Gonser

As Bob hits the bottom of Ski Run, his car sputters, coughs and dies.

It’s nighttime, it’s cold and rainy.

He crosses the street to the pay phone near Kentucky Fried Chicken to call his wife at home in Round Hill.

“Please deposit two dollars and 90 cents,” an automated female voice informs him through the receiver.

Angrily, Bob makes a mental note to throw a couple rolls of quarters into his glove compartment in case of future emergencies, and dials his wife collect.

Bob’s situation is not especially unusual – emergencies happen – but how many people actually carry around $2.90 in loose change?

Oddly enough, if Bob’s car had stalled near Johnson Boulevard, his call from the pay phone in front of Safeway would only cost him 35 cents for 15 minutes – and it would have been farther away from his home than the first call.

Local calls on South Shore can cost anywhere from 25 cents to $4.

The main reason is that the telephone industry operates as a free market – and there are nearly 6,000 different pay phone providers operating 277,000 pay phones in the state of California alone.

“Pay phones were deregulated in ’97, which basically meant that pay phone providers could charge whatever they wanted for local calls,” said Stevan Allen, spokesperson for Pacific Bell. “The theory was that the price of a local call was artificially low – the thinking was, ‘Let’s make it a free market and see what the market can bear.’

“Consequently, you find some extreme price ranges.”

Calls within a 12-mile radius are considered local by providers such as Pacific and Nevada Bell, and cost 35, or even 25 cents. But that doesn’t mean other phone companies necessarily do the same.

“There’s a huge universe of vendors out there offering pay phone service. People should check local call rates marked on the pay phones before making a call,” Allen said. “Also, a lot of companies try to make their phones look like Pacific or Nevada Bell phones, so people really need to pay attention.”

And just because a pay phone has a Pacific Bell phone book hanging from it doesn’t mean it’s a Pacific or Nevada Bell phone. According to Allen, Pacific Bell sells its phone books to thousands of phone companies.

There are, however, industry watchdogs who inspect public phones across the state ensuring that providers are following the rules.

“The majority of pay phone providers are pretty good at maintaining the standards,” said Adam Thaler, regulatory analyst for California Public Utilities Commission, telecommunications division. “If the inspectors catch a violation, the provider is sent a citation notice and has 10 days to rectify the situation.”

Thaler said that despite having a team of eight inspectors checking 3,200 to 3,400 public phones each month, violations do occur. The most important thing to remember, according to Thaler, is that the phone should have prominently displayed local rates and time limits, a number and address identifying the phone and its location, and a toll-free number to call in case of problems.


What You Can Do

n By law, pay phones must have signs stating the cost of local calls and what to do in case of problems. Before making a call, check the rates sign on the phone to find out how much the call will cost.

n Always carry enough change so that no matter what the cost, you will be able to make a call.

n Consider buying a calling card or making collect calls.

n If you have a problem with the phone or your call isn’t connected and you don’t get your money back, call the toll-free number listed on the phone to report the problem.

n Write the Federal Communications Commission if you have a complaint about the cost of a local call or the cost of a directory assistance call made using a pay phone, at: FCC, Common Carrier Bureau, Consumer Complaints, Mail Stop 1600A2, Washington, D.C. 20554. Or call 1-888-225-5322.

n Call Pay Phone Service Providers Enforcement at 1-800-270-2678 to file a complaint about pay phone service, no sign in the pay phone stating the company or cost of a call, not being able to use the long distance company of your choice, or problems getting a refund. Or write to: Pay Phone Service Providers Enforcement, 2610 Crow Canyon Road, Ste. 150, San Ramon, Calif. 94583.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.