Overfilling the bill

MOST of the tedious reading I've done in recent months has been in the form of telephone bills. This month I've been burdened with a double bill: a novelette from my local company and the tale of several cities from my long distance firm. I get so engrossed reading the lengthy bills that I really don't have much time to make any telephone calls. Frankly, I would much prefer the system used about a century ago when the telephone first entered the American home. Then the first operators were young boys who helped customers reach out and touch somebody and also collected fees from subscribers by going directly to their homes. Since the monthly leasing fee for one of my phones is only a buck and a half, I'd much rather have the newsboy I had years ago make a grand return (now the collection for newspapers in my neighborhood is done by mail). He cou ld collect the money in cash, give me a receipt, and turn over the amount to the phone companies much in the same manner that he would handle his newspaper account.

Unlike the 14-page telephone bill, the newsboy's reckoning paper was the size of a ticket stub. And it was a different color every month, often corresponding with the colors of the season and readily attachable to the kitchen bulletin board. In line with the federal government's Paperwork Reduction Act, we might legislate any scheme through a Paperboy (I'm sorry I just can't accept Paperperson) Expansion Act.

All this billing paper is really a serious problem. Phone companies have to spend megabucks preparing so many sheets, mail personnel find their bags weighing so much that they're arriving later at their destinations, and phone subscribers have to spend inordinate time sorting through the verbiage to get to the bottom line. That's all reminiscent of a paraphrase of Winston Churchill's famous remark: never has so much gone to so many who appreciate it so little.

If the phone companies don't clean up their act, we may find more Americans doing what Antonio Meucci did in 1857. Meucci, a candlemaker and brewer from Staten Island, New York, effected sound transmission through a tight wire connected to two cans. Tony lost his suit claiming that he was the original inventor of the telephone, but he didn't have to worry about getting the right party to fix his system, paying monthly access charges, or fumbling through thick telephone materials.

In fact, the more you hear about Tony's independent system, the better it might sound.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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