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Holdout 10-Cent Phone Calls May End

October 11, 1997

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ A dime in the shoe once protected against a date gone awry.

But it’s blister city for Arkansans trying to stuff enough change into footwear for telephone emergencies.

``I always carried a dime in my shoe,″ said Susan Baugh of Jonesboro. ``You can’t really carry 35 cents in your shoe.″

While pay phone calls went to a quarter years ago for most of the country, Arkansas never let go, not since 1953.

But the price will jump to 35 cents in some parts of the state, as the last holdouts fall to new federal deregulation rules.

As recently as a year ago, telephone company subsidies kept calls to a dime in Arkansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. In January, Nynex announced it was raising rates to a quarter _ its first increase in the three New England states in more than 40 years.

Federal Communications Commission provisions deregulating pay telephones took effect in Arkansas on Tuesday as the agency implemented another provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

For Tom Wilkins, a clip-on pager and a pocketful of dimes are as important to his funnel cake business as his deep fat fryer. He was disgruntled about the prospect of needing quarters.

``It’s ridiculous,″ Wilkins said as he prepared for Friday’s opening of the Arkansas State Fair & Rodeo. ``You turn around and everybody’s got their hand in your pocket.″

Before the new law, increases had to win FCC approval. But the agency rejected proposals before, saying that Arkansas was a rural state, where many didn’t have phones, said Art Stuenkel, the commission’s attorney.

``People were dependent on pay phones,″ he said. ``They wanted everyone to have access.″

Low-income people will suffer the most, economists said. People who can afford cellular telephones aren’t dependent on finding one of the nation’s 2.1 million pay phones.

And few expect competition among pay phone companies to keep prices low.

``People don’t want to drive around looking for a cheaper pay phone. It’s an inconvenience,″ said economics professor John N. Drobak at Washington University in St. Louis.

Southwestern Bell, with 14,300 pay phones in the state, will go to 35 cents, said spokeswoman Rhonda Cline. GTE (1,500 pay phones) also expects an increase. Alltel Corp. said 10-cent calls cost more than they bring in, but has not decided on an increase.

Ms. Baugh’s teen-age son doesn’t walk with a jingle in his step as she once did. He carries a pre-paid phone card in his wallet. And Wilkins said he would consider switching to some kind of calling card if rates increase.

``I feel the same about this as I feel about taxes _ I’m not happy,″ Wilkins said.

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