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Practicing pay-phone piracy



The pay phone at the corner of Short and Conley avenues serves neighborhood residents and passersby. "I think I used it to call a cab a couple of times," says Larry Brown, while sitting on the porch of a rental home within 10 feet of the phone. "A lot of people stop by and use it."

Nonetheless, the phone is slated for removal under a city ordinance prohibiting them within view of the right-of way. "They ought to let it stay there," says Brown. "People in the neighborhood who don't have a phone come and use it."

Since 1993, city inspectors have insisted on the removal of more than 100 pay phones, due to complaints from neighborhood activists trying to spur rebirth of the Parramore Heritage District, west of I-4 in downtown Orlando, as well as the Lake Eola Heights neighborhood, south of Colonial Drive.

"The neighbors felt it was a conduit for illegal activity, such as drugs and prostitution," says Merecedese Clark, who helped prepare the Parramore redevelopment plan.

Unfortunately, in removing the booths, those living nearby who are unable to afford service in their homes, as well as law-abiding passersby, are left without a phone to call in emergencies or to conduct daily business.

"We don't want to deprive people who need phone service for emergency purposes," Clark says. "We've got to come up with more creative ways."

In removing the phones, the city is testing laws which set up the Florida Public Service Commission as the authority responsible for the location and use of pay phones in the state. Until passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the local phone company -- BellSouth in Orange County -- was required to meet "universal service" guidelines, subsidizing services, such as pay phones, through other phone rates. But in welcoming other companies into their territories, deregulation also relieves the company of this responsibility.

In September, responding to questions from a Fort Lauderdale official considering an ordinance like Orlando's, a state commission attorney wrote that state and federal law gave the commission "exclusive jurisdiction" over pay phones in Florida. General Counsel Robert Vandiver also emphasized the 1996 federal act prohibits any measure blocking pay-phone businesses. So, while Assistant City Attorney Wes Powell says Orlando is on safe ground in enforcing its ordinance -- at least until the commission sets guidelines for pay phones -- a legal challenge might overturn it.

But such a challenge seems unlikely, as the owners of the property where the phones are located are the ones required to have them removed, rather than the pay-phone companies who cut property owners in on profits.

Judging by the identical phone two blocks away, the companies are able to put them up faster than the city can take them down. According to BellSouth, there are more than 1,000 pay-phone companies in Florida, 150 in Orange and Seminole counties alone. And with deregulation of rates Oct. 7, Congress expects more to jump in.

Good luck finding the company that owns the ill-fated phone at Short and Conley. The contact number reached a 24-hour answering service, and the listed corporation wasn't on file with the Florida Secretary of State.

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