Is the Concept of Long Distance Still Relevant?

by Colin Berkshire

Should the concept of long distance even exist?LATA-TX

A friend was recently in the hospital. He complained that he couldn’t call his family from his room. The hospital has provided him with a telephone, but every call needed to be placed using a credit card at operator handled rates…even calls nearby. I was shocked by this.

Aside from the sheer inhumanity of not allowing patients in a hospital room to make free phone calls when a room costs $5,000 to $15,000 a day was the question of why this should even be possible. I mean, why does “Long Distance” even exist. The Credit Card rate for the first three minutes was $4.78. That was to call a distance of about 50 miles.

We all know that a VOIP call costs about 1₵ per minute to call anywhere in the continental United States. If you use a super premium carrier it can cost 1.5₵ and there are discount carriers in the sub-1₵ range. Thus, this phone call could not possibly have cost the hospital 5₵…but there they were, routing all patients to the $4.78 credit card carrier.

I walked over to the hospital business office and asked them why they didn’t include phone calls anywhere, gratis. Their explanation was that some patients would abuse the privilege and would talk all-day-long. I can do math: if a patient talked 24 hours a day the cost could not exceed $15. That was if they talked 24 hours a day from their $5,000-a-day room.

When I pointed this out I then got a different response: The hospital “depended upon” the commission earned from those calls. Apparently, the “Compassionate Healing” promise on their front door didn’t include talking with loved ones on the phone.

I discussed this with a friend who pointed out that this was perhaps no worse than AT&T and Verizon wireless who charge $2.49 a minute to call Japan, China, or most other countries. Good point. After all-VoIP access to Japan is under 2₵ a minute and China is under 1₵ a minute. Verizon and AT&T are even a worse rip-off at $7.50 for a 3-minute under 5₵ phone call.

I think we should really ask the question of whether the concept of Long Distance should even exist anymore. It is nearly free to call anywhere in the world. Most US-based voice carriers actually dump their POTS traffic into the Internet and no longer maintain dedicated voice circuits. All of those coast-to-coast microwave towers went dark long-ago. Is there even a plausible argument that Long Distance should exist?

The only plausible reason is that as a people we think that it is somehow ethical to charge $2.49 a minute to call China, and that it is ethical to charge a dying patient in a hospital room $4.75 to talk with their immediate family. To me, both of these are unethical.

It is time that we develop a new vision for telecommunications in America. We need fresh thinking and a bit of radicalism. If America is to remain globally competitive we need to re-think through basic policy.

When I picked up my no-contract SIM card in Hong Kong for $15 it included 6 months of service, 240 minutes of talk time, and my local calling area included 31 countries including all of the US, Canada, and China.

Yes, we need some fresh thoughts.