By Charlene O’Hanlon
The Florida Public Service Commission (PSC) has announced it is stepping up inspections
and quality assurance within the state’s payphone industry, following a failed spot
inspection of about 200 Miami-area payphones. Payphone owners, however, are confused and
angered by the PSC’s announcement, citing low consumer complaint rates.
The Florida PSC held a press conference in early December announcing its new "get
tough" policy on payphones, due to poor service quality and, in some cases,
non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"Payphones are a bottom-line communication tool for many people," said
Commissioner Joe Garcia during the press conference. "Let this be a strong message to
payphone companies that we are cracking down on poor service quality, and that we intend
to assure Florida’s consumers are getting their money’s worth when they use a
Payphone owners, though, believe the PSC has taken the failed inspection out of
context, putting a scarlet letter on the payphone industry for the entire state.
"You can’t take a snapshot of one situation and think that’s indicative of the
whole industry," says Lance Norris, president of the Florida Public
Telecommunications Association. "The area inspected was not one of the more affluent
neighborhoods of Miami–there are some real problems with vandalism on those
payphones–and that’s not looking at the industry as a whole."
It was an isolated incident that sparked the controversy: Garcia was visiting the
Little Havana area of Miami on business, and when he needed to use a payphone, he couldn’t
find one that worked. Of the payphones he tried to use, one did not have dial tone and
another took his money. In addition, Garcia said during the press conference, the overall
appearance of the phones was not acceptable. He finally found a working phone a few miles
from where he started.
Based on his experience, Garcia ordered a spot check of about 200 phones in the Miami
area. Of those checked, only six met all the requirements set forth by the Florida PSC. In
all, the PSC found:
The PSC uses a 29-point checklist as its guideline for measuring payphone service
quality, which includes requirements such as current directory available, instrument
reasonably clean and correct address of payphone location displayed, among others. If even
one of the requirements is not met, the owner of that payphone is notified and the problem
has to be remedied–or the PSC notified of the owner’s intent to remedy–within 15 days.
If the problem is not resolved, the payphone owner could be fined or, if this a recurring
problem, have his certificate to operate revoked.
Rick Moses, communications engineer supervisor, State of Florida, says it’s not unusual
for payphones to fail an inspection.
"Generally we will find some violations, such as a phone directory missing or out
of date, or some technical problem with the phone. But there are also phones that we find
are completely satisfactory," he says.
About 3,000 inspections are done throughout the year, Moses notes, and most of the
violations are minor. "The offenses depend on the population around the payphone. If
you go into a real bad neighborhood, your chances of finding a telephone directory there
are slim to none," he says. "Vandalism is rampant, and people will stuff things
into the coin chute so, naturally, the phone won’t work. Then they unstuff them and the
payphone returns all the money to them. Also, with drug trafficking, people continually
hang around payphones waiting for incoming calls. We’ve issued waivers so payphone owners
can block incoming calls, but the vandalism still occurs.
"In all fairness to the industry," he adds, "that thing is out there and
it does take a lot of abuse by the elements and people taking out their aggressions on the
phone. It’s essentially a computer sitting out there; it’s no longer just a regular
The FPTA’s Norris agrees that service quality should be a top priority with payphone
"We do not condone pay telephone operators not abiding by the rules of the Public
Service Commission," he says. "There is always room for improvement and we hope
(payphone owners) take their business seriously and provide the quality of service that
the consumers demand."
However, Norris says the violations that regularly occur are so minor that, by
chastising the quality of payphones in the Miami area, the PSC is unfairly tarnishing the
image of an entire industry.
"The PSC was making a big deal out of the number of consumer complaints, but when
you go back and look at the complaints they had, they were all minor. Consumer complaints
are down drastically, nominal at best. There are still some out there, but a lot are rate
complaints on charges from an operator services provider or something like that–not
something that is in the jurisdiction of the PSC anyway," he says.
Norris cites figures from the PSC: "In 1996 there were 102 complaints," he
says. From January through October 1997, he adds, the PSC recorded 70 complaints.
"We’re going to be at about 100 complaints again this year, but that’s out of 117,000
phones. That’s not a bad record."
What seems to be at the heart of the matter–and the reason the PSC is taking such a
sudden interest in payphone quality–is the deregulation of the local exchange carrier
(LEC) payphone industry. Price increases for local phone calls have prompted a surge in
the need for quality, according to the PSC.
"We can’t stop the price increase, but we still have the power to force the
payphone companies to keep them in good working order," says Thelma Crump,
spokesperson for the Division of Consumer Affairs, Florida Bureau of Consumer Information
and Conservation Education.
And no one group–LECs or private payphone owners–is being targeted as the worst
offenders, Florida’s Moses notes.
"Now that the payphones of LECs have been deregulated the same as the private
payphone industry, we’re now seeing pretty much the same trends across the board. In 1995,
we fined several LECs for handicapped violations. BellSouth alone got fined $60,000 for
various violations," Moses says. "LECs have had their share of problems,
although they’ve not had quite the problems that the private folks do, mainly because they
understand the rules a little better."
As the Florida PSC steps up its inspection efforts, the deregulation that payphone
owners originally may have viewed as a windfall in the form of increased calling and
service charges to consumers instead may turn out to be the albatross around many owners’
necks. And many of those owners may come to an untimely end at the hands of missing or
out-of-date phone directories.
"The directory problem is rampant," Moses says. "You get a salesperson
coming into town, grabbing a directory and running with it, and it’s becoming more
difficult for providers to maintain. But we’re taking a harder look at those, because now
operator service providers are able to charge for directory assistance. It really puts the
consumer at a disadvantage because if the directory is not available, the consumer has no
option but to call directory assistance and get charged for the call."
Norris, however, believes it would be impossible for payphone owners to keep
directories at all phones at all times.
"(Payphone owners) can’t keep going out there and replacing books and binders at
each payphone. Now the PSC is looking at requiring both the white and yellow pages. In
South Florida that would require three binders at each phone. That’s expensive,"
Despite what might be viewed as an adversarial relationship between the PSC and the
FPTA, Norris insists both sides are working together to come up with a mutually beneficial
agreement. Meanwhile, payphone owners are on alert.
"Commissioner Garcia made it clear that this is only the beginning and that he is
taking a personal interest in following these issues," Norris said in a memo sent
from the FPTA to its members following the PSC’s announcement. "This means that now,
more than ever, you must ensure that all of your pay telephones are in compliance with PSC
rules and regulations."
The Florida Public Service Commission has a 29-point checklist which it uses during
payphone inspections. As part of its inspection process, the PSC checks for the following:
Source: Florida Public Service Commission