Municipally Owned Telephone

Many municipalities have considered or have already started to provide broadband services to their residents directly, bypassing numerous commercial enterprises that specialize in those functions. There were more than 100 cities doing that already just in the United States alone in 2011. Reasons included control over speed and pricing, as well as a desire to provide service directly to every residence within its boundaries. In Chattanooga, Tennessee earlier this year for instance, noted that the city had:

… leapt to the forefront of American cities with ultra high-speed broadband service and has accomplished the feat in a surprisingly old-fashioned way: the city’s municipally-owned electric utility provides the service. Tennessee’s fourth-largest city is now a member of a small, but elite group of world-class cities that can offer residents and businesses Internet service of up to one gigabit per second, 200 times faster than the average broadband speed in America.

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at that "old-fashioned way" and see how it was doing today with another communication medium, the land-line telephone. While somewhat maligned now and overtaken largely by cellular and Internet technologies, wired telephony was a leading-edge technology in the previous century. Back then towns and cities worldwide built and owned their own local telephone systems for many of the same reasons why they’re exploring municipal broadband today.

I wondered if any municipalities still provisioned their own telephone service. Very few, it turned out. I confirmed only three instances. I’m certain a handful of others must exist in small pockets elsewhere, particularly in the non-English speaking part of the world that I found difficult to parse with typical Internet searches.

Pineville, North Carolina, USA

Pineville, North Carolina

The Pineville Telephone Company bills itself as,

… a full service telecommunications provider, which has supplied quality service to Pineville’s business and residential community since it was established in 1937. PTC is currently one of only two municipally owned telephone companies operating in the United States. Because PTC is municipally owned, we are able to offer our residential customers some of the lowest rates in the state.

Pineville was once a distinct location although it’s largely evolved into a suburb blended within the larger Charlotte, North Carolina metropolitan area, and wedged-in by a state border with South Carolina. Its practically unique telephone system harkened back to an earlier time when Pineville was a more isolated pocket of population drifting upon a rural landscape. I’m not sure how Pineville knew that there were only two occurrences in the United States, however that’s all I could find so there might be some truth to their statement unless someone else can uncover another one.

Barnesville, Minnesota, USA

Barnsville, Minnesota, USA

Barnesville, unlike Pineville, continued to retain its original rural charm, with an annual Barnesville Potato Days held each August as an example. The bare-bones City of Barnesville Municipal Telephone website explained its entire set of offerings on a single page, and explained,

In 1901 the City of Barnesville became the first city in Minnesota to own a municipal phone service. The phone service has always generated substantial revenue, and profits from the system have helped keep property taxes lower… Municipal ownership of these important utilities ensures resident of cutting edge technology at affordable prices.

Barnesville also provisioned its own cable television network so municipal ownership was a model that obviously worked well for them. The city seemed have a good set of reasons to retain their telephone system. That didn’t prevent the vast preponderance of other municipalities similarly situated from divesting over time, however.

I also noticed a statement on the Barnesville site that happened to reference two municipally-owned telephone systems in Minnesota without additional explanation. If true, I couldn’t find the other one.

Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada

Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada

There might be only a single remaining example in all of Canada, at Thunder Bay, Ontario. The Thunder Bay Telephone Company, which has since been renamed Tbaytel, traced its origins back to 1902. If it’s not the only municipally-owned telephone company in Canada it’s certainly the largest, and its likely larger than either of the remaining examples in the United States. Tbaytel also expanded into cellular service with a significant subscriber base throughout Northern Ontario.

There were other examples in Northern Ontario until recently. The Kenora Municipal Telephone System (KMTS) became a division of Bell Aliant in February 2008 as did the Dryden Municipal Telephone Service (DMTS) in January 2013. Many Internet sources were still catching-up with that news.

Speaking of…

Kingston upon Hull, England. Nope.

Kingston upon Hull, England

Kingston upon Hull, frequently referred to simply as Hull, retained a municipally-owned telephone system for a very long time, a final holdout from British Telecom, BT. Somehow Hull resisted national utility consolidations successfully. Hull’s municipal provider, Kingston Communications, traced its origins back to the earliest days of the 20th Century. Later it became KCOM Group, and its history page explained what happened next: In 1999 "The Kingston Communications Group was partially floated on the London Stock Exchange, with the City Council retaining its interest with a 44.9 per cent stake." Then in 2007, "Hull City Council [sold] remaining stakeholding in the Group." KCOM Group became a fully publicly-traded company at that time. It maintained its practical monopoly on telephone services in Hull albeit no longer as a municipally-owned entity.

White Classic Phone Boxes of the Hull Telephone Company Hull Town Centre East Yorkshire Sep 2013 by calflier001, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license

The most interesting and visible quirk, in my opinion, was that Kingston upon Hull did not field the iconic red British telephone box because BT did not provide service the area. Rather, Kingston Communications fielded a box that had been described either as white or cream. Telephone boxes have become such an anachronism that perhaps even that one simple individualistic distinction will fade over time as well. Look at them while you can (e.g., Street View image that I expect to disappear someday).

Editorial: Numerical Irrelevance

Fair warning, this article contains opinions and editorial content. You’re welcome to continue reading or come back in a couple of days when I return to the more traditional mix of geo-oddities and weird locations.

A note to myself in the Year 2050 (assuming I’m still writing 12MC, and alive, preferably both… although writing from the grave might be interesting too): "write an article about how there was once a time when people used a geographically-based numerical string to communicate over long distances."

I’ll focus on the North American Numbering Plan because I have a passing familiarity with it, although parallels could certainly be drawn to other numbering plans beyond the continent.

The first three digits are known as a "numbering plan area" or NPA. An analogous designation more familiar to the general public is "Area Code" so I’ll use that term throughout the remainder of this article. The next three digits are the NXX, or the exchange (NXX isn’t actually an acronym, it represents specific numerical characteristics).

Area code VA
Wikimedia Commons via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Let’s use my beloved Commonwealth to consider the complexity that evolved over time. Virginia once had a single area code, 703. Population increases along with device accretion, particularly the rise of mobile devices, resulted in ever-increasing territorial divisions. It also necessitated bizarre "overlay" area codes when it became too difficult to keep slicing the map and making people adjust to new numbers every few years.

It doesn’t matter. It will be completely irrelevant soon enough.

The NXX portion of a telephone number, the exchange, still retains a geographic identity although it’s gone underground. It was once very visible. The Glenn Miller Orchestra popularized a composition by Jerry Gray in 1940 called PEnnsylvania 6-5000, as an example. It was the telephone number of the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York City. You’ll probably recognize the song even though it was released long before most of us were born (listen on YouTube). The hotel continues to exist although the number converted to the much less memorable 736-5000 generations ago.

Where am I going with this? Right. Just like nobody really cares or consideres that telephone exchanges are physical places — except perhaps from an historical or nostalgic perspective — the same will soon be true for area codes. I started noticing this probably about three to five years ago. It’s hard for me to pin down a date exactly because it’s been such a gradual movement.

Employers that wish to remain relevant recognize a need to refresh and replenish their workforces. Many of these are newly-graduating students from colleges and universities. My employer, and probably many of yours, recruits actively on university campuses. We gain a steady stream of entry-level professionals each summer who quickly blend into the group, bringing fresh perspectives and influencing new approaches. My organization has a critical mission that has to continue regardless of weather conditions or other external factors so we’ve developed multiple ways to communicate, including sharing personal telephone numbers as a contingency. That’s where I first noticed the trend as it grew.

Newer employees, all living within the Washington, DC area, had "home" phone numbers with unusual area codes. When I’d ask, since I’m a curious sort because I’m a bit of a telecom geek, they’d invariably tie it back to a mobile phone number they’d retained since high school or college. For them the area code long-ago transitioned in meaning. It became a geographic signifier of a formative point in their life (much like a Social Security Number) rather than a reflection of a current place.

They don’t have home phones. The logic: Why would anyone want a device tied to a place instead of a person? That’s no grand revelation, either. Many of us have given up our home phones. The revelation may be that we’re getting close to a tipping point where enough people will have relocated, taking their numbers with them, to effectively disassociate area code from geography.

That’s not true solely for mobile phones either. I don’t have a black plastic box with a handset and a keypad on my desk while I work. We all use Cisco IP phones that replicate the functions of traditional telephones within a computer desktop. I can work from an office, from home, from a hotel or wherever I choose and nobody calling me can tell the difference. I plug a headset into a USB port on a device loaded with the necessary software and the network finds me. We even have remote workers who telework from their homes full-time in locations all around the country and they all have "Northern Virginia" area codes served by IP phones.

Telephones are going the way of the dinosaur anyway although that’s probably a conversation for a different day. Chat, video and collaboration tools are all eating into telephone usage. My work phone rings maybe once or twice a week now and I’m a bit annoyed when it happens: "why are they calling?"

So area codes are becoming irrelevant as geographic identifiers, and telephones are becoming irrelevant as a primary means of long-distance communication. I imagine a day in the not too distant future where each of us will have a cute unique identifier that bounces off some central registry somewhere. It will allow people to communicate with us using whatever method seems most appropriate for that specific conversation (including something as quaint and antiquated as a voice call if that’s what they want). The inegrated chat/phone/video function of GMail already operate similarly although I see something more global, less proprietary. It would work much like how domain name servers operate today where it’s easier to remember than a big string of seemingly random numbers.

Goodbye, area code. Your (user visible) days are numbered.

Cheesy Orlando

I’m now at the fourth Orlando described on my previous article and settling in for the week. It was viciously hot in Florida yesterday afternoon when I first arrived, 93° f. / 34° c., but I did manage to get outside and walk about some local sights such as they were. I’m based in the International Drive area. It’s not the most attractive spot nor the most pedestrian-friendly, but there are lots of hotels here and nothing is too far away by suburban sprawl standards. Let’s head outside and stretch our legs.

View Larger Map

There’s no sidewalk from my hotel to International Drive as I cut through several parking lots to avoid being hit. There’s no shade either. It gets a little better up on the main road, though.

Large Crustacean on a Volkswagen Beetle

Now it feels like Orlando. Nothing says tacky tourist spot like a giant crustacean perched atop a Volkswagen Beetle. Somehow I imagine this lobster experience would be a bit different than the one I encountered last Summer.

Goofy Golf with a Tiki Theme

Oh, nothing says tacky tourist spot more than a giant crustacean except maybe a miniature golf course presented in a Tiki theme. Has anyone ever seen a miniature golf course somewhere other than a place where tourists like to congregate? They always remind me of going to the boardwalk along a beach during my childhood days. There aren’t too many players on a day like this, though. People are wilting.

I met a guy from Edinburgh, Scotland while we waited for the hotel elevator. He was completely flushed with a beet-red face after a full day touring SeaWorld with his family. He explained that it was only 12° c. "back home" and after I quickly did the math in my head I understood why he was having trouble dealing with the situation here in Central Florida. I was having trouble myself and I was already somewhat acclimated.

Building Flipped Updside-Down

Did I say the crustacean and the goofy golf won the tourist prize? No, I think it may be the upside-down building that houses a place called WonderWorks. It certainly does catch one’s attention.

It’s an eerie time to be down here. Spring Break for the children has ended but Summer vacation hasn’t yet started. Everything seems to be about a quarter full; the hotels, the attractions, the roads. I’m not sure if the general state of the economy has contributed to the feeling either, but I’ve stayed along International Drive several times and I don’t think it’s ever felt so empty to me before.

Public Phones have Vanished

This has nothing to do with tourism and everything to do with my strange fascinations. Is anything quite so forlorn as the graphic evidence of the demise of the public telephone? Here is an entire alcove once set aside for that purpose completely abandoned, every phone ripped from the wall. My children will tell their children that once-upon-a-time someone could find a device hardwired into a wall, drop a coin (another object not long for this world) into a slot and make a call. The irony was not lost on me, by the way, as I snapped a photo with my mobile phone, uploaded the image to my Gmail account, pulled it over into WordPress, and published it to the world via a blog that most people view using an rss feed subscriber. I’m not mourning the loss of the public telephone, just feeling a bit nostalgic as I consider that every day we all get a bit older and the world constantly evolves.

Thanks for all of the suggestions I’ve received both as comments and personal emails for Orlando geo-oddity sightseeing opportunities. I’m a bit limited by time and distance but I’ll see what I can do to salvage some interesting experiences after work-hours this week. Please post more suggestions if you have them.