After a lifetime with Ma Bell, finally time to say goodbye

I have today written my last check ever to the phone company, with which I have had a relationship stretching across a half-century or more.

Incomprehensible though it may seem in this era of instantaneous worldwide communications, when I was growing up in rural Mississippi, not that many folks had telephones (my family didn’t). Key phone numbers in my small town were often two digits, or three at most, and to make a call, one lifted the receiver of the heavy metal phone (black only) and spoke the number to a switchboard operator at the downtown exchange, who then connected the call.

Making a long-distance call was a big deal; even a call to a town 20 miles away wasn’t done lightly. And the per-minute charges could be pretty steep.

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Then came rotary dial phones (still heavy, still black) and later the amazing Touch Tone phones became available (an extra monthly cost), with limited color choices (an extra monthly cost) — all obtainable, in that pre-deregulation era, only from Ma Bell or one of her subsidiaries (no going to a store and buying a phone).

Monopolistic though she was, Ma Bell was a paragon of service. If there was a problem, just call the phone company and one of their guys would be out to fix it. A billing error? Phone the office and talk with a real person to straighten it out.

Automatic switching, direct dial, and other technological advances later left thousands of telephone operators without jobs and the telephone system began losing the personality it had built over decades. Getting service of any kind necessitated going through automation hell before maybe, perhaps, getting a live person in a who-knows-where call center. And deregulation, resulting in phone companies galore, further eliminated any remaining vestiges of personal service.

My ex-phone company went from being a user-friendly monopoly to a deregulated megalithic, indifferent entity that continued raising its rates for increasingly lackluster service.

But at long last, in my town there now is a new kid on the block, C Spire, a homegrown Mississippi company not wedded to yesterday’s infrastructure and technology, leapfrogging ahead with the latest of everything in telecom services — gigabit Internet, gorgeous hi-def TV, and local/long distance phone with all the bells and whistles — all at a very attractive package price that has created competition where heretofore there was little or none.

So, it’s with a great deal of pleasure that I write a final check and bid adios to the company that for decades set the standard for telecommunications, but has been content to charge more for less while newer, more innovative operations have steadily chipped away at their business.

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