The 'end of the road' still waits for basic phone line

At dawn of a networked century, some people subsist on crackling radiophones.

Logging on to the Internet, checking e-mail, or sending a fax hardly seem like luxuries in pre-Y2K America. Affordable phone service and confidence that emergency calls will get through are givens.

Ron Brodigan would settle for just a consistent dial tone.

For Mr. Brodigan and about 200 other residents of rural northeastern Minnesota, telephone technology consists of bulky $75-per-month radio phone units that crackle and are often rendered useless during the Northland's frigid winters or frequent summer storms.

"When it gets to 25-below it doesn't work," says Brodigan. "And where we are, it gets to 25-below all the time during the winter."

And the Internet? Brodigan, who runs a resort and log construction school, needs a special antenna and a string of connecting devices to get on the Web - at a $3,000 annual price tag.

In an era of broadband cables and round-the-clock communication, the outskirts of Ely, Minn., are a reminder that technology's high-speed shuttle has left many Americans in the dust.

All but 2 percent of Minnesotans and 5 percent of Americans, have phone service. But as one federal government report puts it, a "digital divide" based on income or, in this case, geography, has put basic communications out of reach. About half of American Indian homes, for example, lack a telephone.

"Phones were common in the 1880s. Here we are in 1999 and it's getting a little bit late," says Brodigan, who lives 20 miles from Ely, the jumping-off point for canoeists and campers entering the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. "We just want what the people in Ely have. Ordinary telephone service."

Rolf Thompson, director of YMCA Camp Widjiwagan, oversees a staff of 90, more than 700 campers - and two phone lines.

"We have 90 people on our staff trying to get time on one phone line. It's really frustrating," Mr. Thompson says. "When we get regular phone service, we'll add three more lines immediately," which is currently impossible because the radio phones are no longer being manufactured. The crackling signal, meanwhile, interrupts half the camp's fax traffic, he estimates.

For three decades, locals have petitioned to get regular phone service.

Now, barring a successful appeal by communications giant GTE, it looks as though they'll get it.

In mid-July, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission voted 4-to-0 to order GTE, which provides telephone service to Ely's 4,000 residents, to extend its service by year end to two areas that cover more than 250 current radio phone lines and 158 potential subscribers not served at all.

GTE argues the plan is too costly - $2.5 million or more - and that the company has no legal duty to serve the petitioners, because they live in "unassigned territory."

Ely, Minn., might seem like the end of the earth to the 250,000 visitors who come from throughout the entire country - and even from around the globe - to catch walleyes and trout or to paddle canoes in any of the 500-or-so lakes nearby. Its radio station, once owned by late CBS newsman Charles Kuralt, even bills itself as "End of the Road Radio."

The nearest shopping malls and fourplex movie theaters - and McDonald's - are an hour away, and the closest thing to a metropolitan area is Duluth, 110 miles away on the shores of Lake Superior.

Still, Ely has come a long way since a late-1980s local newspaper headline heralded the arrival of the first ATM machine in a local bank. Canoe outfitters and trendy gift shops line the streets, and wilderness recreation buttresses a local economy long fueled by mining and timber.

And despite its remoteness, Ely boasts a new fiber-optic link to the outside world and a GTE office.

But when GTE's predecessor and other phone companies drew up boundaries decades ago, left behind were areas such as Brodigan's - where often you're more likely to encounter a moose on highway than a motor vehicle.

Until 1990, phone service there consisted of a rotary-dial unit and a bulky receiver package, with a horn to signal an incoming call, which Brodigan mounted on his cabin. "It sounded like a Volkswagen coming through the woods," he says. And with the line shared with the summer camp, "getting on was just like winning the lottery."

The service improved during the 1990s, as smaller units, similar to cordless phones, came along and the party-line system ended. Still, problems persist, and customers grouse about monthly bills of $75 or more, well in excess of the $18 basic monthly rate in Ely.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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