The buzzword used often with technologies — in this case, smartphones — is “disruptive.”
Because the phones we carry with us throughout the day can do so much — phone calls, messaging, photos, news, social connections, a range of entertainment and business applications — we can largely do with less or even without those services that were once the domain of traditional providers.
And those providers — newspapers being a prime example — are still working out the details in making that digital and mobile transition. But there remain expectations for those traditional providers to continue to offer service as that transition continues.
Which brings us to Verlot. The small community of less than 300, about 40 minutes east of Everett on the Mountain Loop Highway, is best known as one of Snohomish County’s gateways to the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest and its trailheads and attractions. Chief among them is the Big Four ice caves, which annually attract about 50,000 visitors. But the ice caves, prone to collapse and falls of ice and rocks, are as dangerous as they are beautiful.
As ubiquitous as smartphones are, they still have limitations, including spotty connections in remote areas, particularly among the dense woods and mountains of the national forest. With cellular network connections limited, the duty of emergency communication often falls to landline phone connections, particularly payphones. But those lines may soon go dead.
Frontier Communications, the main landline phone provider in the county and state, has proposed removal of two payphones in the area, as The Herald’s Rikki King reported Sunday. One payphone is at the National Forest’s Verlot ranger station, about a 15-minute drive from the Big Four trailhead parking lot. A second is located a mile west of the ranger station at the Mountain View Inn.
“We know through some heartbreaking tragedies, the closest lifeline to 911 is at the Forest Service office,” Kurt Mills, who oversees SNOPAC, the 911 provider for much of the county, told The Herald.
Since December of 2015, the Verlot ranger station’s payphone has been used 25 times to summon emergency help with a 911 call. Without the payphone, someone trying to call 911 would have to drive another 10 miles to get within range of a cellular network or Granite Falls, adding 15 minutes at best to an emergency crew’s response.
Frontier, which operates a total of about 350 payphones in the state, is moving to take out other phones in the county, basing its decision, a spokesman said, on “usage rates, condition, safety and other considerations.”
As mobile phone ownership has grown to about 95 percent of Americans, Payphone availability has seen a steady decline during the last 20 years. Payphones hit their last peak of about 2.1 million nationwide in 1999 and have steadily declined to less than 100,000 in 2016. That decline has prompted the Federal Communications Commission to move this year to suspend their annual audits of telecomm companies’ payphone business and may eliminate its regulation of payphones altogether.
Frontier said it receives no revenue from the U.S. Forest Service, emergency aid providers or others to operate the payphones, and has suggested that the Forest Service seek “creative alternatives” to the payphone.
No doubt the ranger station’s payphone is not a revenue source for Frontier, which is making a business decision in seeking their removal. Ultimately, payphones will in a matter of years go the way of Fotomat booths.
But Frontier, as the area’s landline provider since buying out Verizon in 2009, still has the obligation to serve the community’s needs, particularly when it is the only resource for emergency communication in remote locations.
At the very least, Frontier needs to work with the Forest Service and emergency communication providers, which are facing their own budget constraints, to provide payphone services until that “creative alternative” is available.