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Reach out, but keep one hand on wallet.

Reach Out, But Keep One Hand On Wallet

High Cost Of Private Line Leaves Rural Customers Hanging

James and Marilyn Wright of East Justice Road in Cabot are finding out that it cost folks who live in the country a little extra to "reach out and touch someone." Apparently, there's nothing they can do about it either.

The Wrights are customers of GTE Southwest Inc. Although they live only 10 miles from Jacksonville, their basic telephone bill totals $64.47 each month, of which a mileage charge for the phone line is $35 per month. If the Wrights lived inside the Jacksonville city limits, their basic charge would be only $21.97.

Marilyn Wright, a secretary at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, says her November telephone bill totaled $238.70 and that her average bill -- for having a private line as opposed to a party line -- is around $151 per month.

"We got our private line in March because we had gotten so frustrated with our party line," Mrs. Wright says. "I didn't feel I had a choice."

Mrs. Wright's husband is truck driver and calls home several times a week, plus her daughter's boyfriend recently moved out of state and also makes frequent calls.

Monthly Mileage Charge

While the Wrights feel that they are being shortchanged, many of the 31 local telephone companies operating in the state charge customers a monthly mileage rate for providing service outside of their base rate areas. Of those rates, 50 cents per quarter mile, or $2 per mile, is the lowest mileage charge.

Customers along the northern border of Arkansas, however, face a whopping $2.05 per quarter mile rate, or $8.20 per mile, according to Kathy Gammill, a telecomunications rate analyst at the Public Service Commission in Little Rock. The PSC regulates phone rates throughout the state.

"I hate to say it, but it costs more to live in the country," she says. "That's kind of a tongue-in-cheek comment, but it's true."

Gammill says consumers within a company's base rate area don't pay a mileage rate and that the area can be extended. As a community grows, for example, phone rates may drop. A base area is designated when a company begins to operate in a community. The base normally is considered to be the municipal or local city limits.

"It's common that you have mileage outside the base rate area," Gammill says. "It has been that way for more years than I can tell you.

"Mileage is a real hard thing to deal with. We look at it periodically to see if anything can be done, but not much can. If it's a legitimate charge and someone doesn't pay it, then everybody does."

However, the question for the Wrights and other rural customers is, should they have to pay the line charge every month, as opposed to a flat, one-time fee or a fee that might be amortized as their service area grows?

Two factors that are figured into the line charge have to do with the number of customers on the line, plus the amount of maintenance required on the line itself. "It depends on whether the line is above or below ground," explains Clovis Callister at GTE Southwest's office in Texarkana. "Also, the further out the line is, the signal has to be amplified and that equipment has to be maintained." Lines also are susceptible to damage from the weather, McCallister says.

For customers who live 20 to 30 miles or more outside a base area, "you're talking megabucks" to have a private line, says Holly Tubbs, manager of consumer services at PSC.

"It may sound cold," Tubbs explains, "but it's the price you have to pay for having a phone. If companies didn't charge mileage, then everyone would have to pay."

Although the PSC does receive some complaints regarding the cost of mileage charges, Tubbs says the majority of the complaints are concerning shutoffs due to nonpayment.

"We do get some calls about mileage charges, but most of them are from people who don't have a phone yet and want us to check and make sure the charges are correct. But it will usually cost the company that much to run and service the line."

Tubbs says that in 1989 the PSC received 875 complaints regarding telephone companies. Service requests such as construction, running telephone lines and changing service comprised 184 of the calls. General service such as problems with the repair service and digging up yards totaled 161. Billing rates and shutoffs totaled 388 complaints.

Holding Down Costs

Although most customers don't realize it, Tubbs says, many telephone companies do try to lower the costs of service.

"For instance, Soutwestern Bell pays for the first 1,000 feet of the line, plus costs and then the customer pays for the rest," Tubbs adds.

Additionally, Tubbs says the majority of the telephone companies will try to work out payment agreements when necessary, although customers will be held accountable for all other bills incurred during the payment plan.

If companies don't think they're earning a respectable rate of return, they can request a rate increase from the PSC.

As far as some customers are concerned, however, phone rates are high enough.

"I don't feel we have any recourse," Mrs. Wright says. "The thing that upsets me is that I feel we're living in this hole. People who live out in the country shouldn't have to pay that high of a charge. It's not fair that we have to pay so much more."
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Article Details
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Author:Smith, Melody
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Dec 31, 1990
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