Once upon a time there was a single phone company in the USA. This company was hated for many reasons, though I never quite understood why. They provided a service that was almost universal, and it was cheap. When the minimum wage was $3.25, a typical basic phone bill was about nine dollars, though mine was $3.50 because I was enrolled in a special “low volume” plan since I made few phone calls. Normally, for the basic rate, you could make unlimited local calls, your phone was provided free, and you got a phone book. Long distance rates were expensive, perhaps thirty cents a minute, but if you called at night and on weekends, that rate was lowered to about ten cents a minute. The voice at the other end was crystal clear, there was little interference if any, and only the person making the call paid.

When the phone company was broken up, people cheered (I actually saw people screaming in joy, clapping and dancing around), though the truth is, the phone company wanted to be broken up. As a monopoly, it was only allowed to provide a single service, and they phonesaw the glimmers of new technologies and possibilities on the horizon. They, being brilliant tacticians, kept the lucrative long-distance business and parceled out the money draining local service. Phone rates went up and up and up. These new companies restructured their businesses so that towns even a few miles away were considered “local long distance.” And you had to buy your own phones.

Then things got really bizarre in the phone business, and now there are untold numbers of phone providers. With cell phones, we have to put up with terrible conditions that were unheard of in the old days. We have to put up with dropped calls, spotty service, horrendous basic rates, and both the person making the call and the one receiving the call have to pay. Of course, our phones go with us everywhere, which is rather a mixed blessing.

And we get six different phone books, all published by different companies, instead of just one. And not one of those phone books is complete for some odd reason. Some businesses don’t show up in all of them, though all businesses show up in some of them.


Yeah, I know. This isn’t my usual sort of post, but I got a call this morning from “Card Services” about my non-existent credit card, and even though I hung up right away, a minute was subtracted from my allowable minutes. It just got me thinking about how far we had come. Or not.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

6 Responses to “Progress?”

  1. Linda Says:

    Oh boy!! I so agree with you. My dad was a manager with Northwest Bell in Duluth, MN. and he had so much respect for the phone company! He probably turned over in his grave when they broke up the Bell companies. My brother was a telephone employee and so was I. There wasn’t a better company then the Bell companies before the government got involved, just like now!!

  2. Carol Wuenschell Says:

    Yeah. The idea that free market capitalism is always going to produce what is best for consumers is overrated. The idea here was that freeing phone service providers from the government regulations that they had as a “utility” would be a good thing. Competition would work it’s magic to insure good service and low prices. Not necessarily.

    And yet, every time I turn around I hear someone say the US Post Office should be eliminated because it runs a deficit and private companies would do a better job…

  3. Ree` Edwards Says:

    All I can add to that? A hearty AMEN! I really miss the ol “Ma Bell” and the simplification that went with it. (I’m old enough to remember the party lines – where you shared a line with someone else.) Of course we never knew who it was but if you picked up the phone to use it and heard someone else talking? You waited until they were through (unless an emergency) until you made your call and everyone back then was more polite as I remember.
    Then again I miss a lot of things about the ‘old days’…

  4. dellanioakes Says:

    Oh, that’s frustrating! I remember when they broke up and “diversified” too. I never saw the point either.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      People complain about the long distance fees they used to charge, but I never had a problem. They can be much worse today — a friend went over her allotted minutes and ended up with a $700 bill. And that wasn’t even for long distance!!

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