'Call me' isn't so simple in border towns

In an empty office in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, a paper shredder starts by itself, and a radio station suddenly loses its signal. Across the Rio Grande in the Texas city of Laredo, a television turns itself on, and phantom voices are heard interrupting a police scanner.

No, these two cities are not haunted. The strange happenings are caused by local residents who are hijacking the radio airwaves to try to cut the high cost of communicating with their compadres across the US-Mexico border.

To many, it's no surprise that Los Dos Laredos have become a hotbed for telephone piracy. A five-minute call from one side of the riverbank to the other can cost as much as a 30-minute call to Paris. In this era of expanded trade, labor-market sharing, and steady immigration, it's a sign that the communications infrastructure between the two nations has not kept pace with reality on the ground.

"The border has become fertile ground for clandestine telecommunications," says Bruce Miller Earle, head of the Laredo Telecommunications Commission. "The result is radio chaos."

Indeed, service is often stolen from one side of the border and haphazardly routed to the other. Dial tones are illegally tapped to turn international calls into local ones. And many people use high-energy, two-way radios tuned to unlicensed frequencies.

But city officials are working to bring order to this chaos in the airwaves. In the first international deal of its kind, the two Laredos are asking for an extended-area calling plan, so that residents pay a flat fee for unlimited telephone calls between cities.

Last week, the mayors of both Laredos signed a petition calling for such a plan. It must be approved by the Federal Communications Commission and its Mexican counterpart.

While most border cities face similar situations, that of Los Dos Laredos is the most desperate. The two cities essentially act as one unit because of the amount of trade that flows through here. It is the largest land port in North America, with 3 million trucks traveling back and forth each year. In addition, 40,000 residents of Nuevo Laredo cross the bridge each day to work in Laredo.

"This community really operates as one community, and we need to find a way to help facilitate that," says Alyssa Eacono, an analyst at the Texas Public Utility Commission, which is helping to structure the extended-area calling plan. While the plan is still being worked out, it could run between $30 and $50 a month and be in place within three months to a year, Ms. Eacono says.

Businessman Mario Hernandez would be an eager customer. Because he lives in Nuevo Laredo and works in Laredo, he has become savvy about his communications options. Depending on the situation, he uses a calling card, at 36 cents a minute; a cell phone, at 22 cents a minute; or two-way radio service, at $30 a month. He can even mount phone calls via the Internet.

"That's the way we have to do it," says Mr. Hernandez, who recently started an Internet consulting business. "Living there and working here, I had to find a way to keep from paying huge long-distance bills."

The problem isn't just expense. There's also interference from thousands of two-way radios - many operating illegally - that are the newest form of cross-city communication. Truckers can be seen calling their warehouses on these large walkie-talkies. Shoppers wander through the mall, chattering on them. Business people hitch them to their belts.

To get around the radios' low power output, the output is fed into amplifiers and tuned to any clear signal. All this activity causes power surges, garbled pages, feedback and echoes on telephones, and lost and interrupted radio broadcasts.

"It's like no man's land on the airwaves," says Laredo city manager Larry Dovalina.

While it may seem funny when baby monitors spew salty Spanish and women at laundromats click walkie-talkies at machines to start them without coins, it can also be dangerous. Police and other emergency radio communications have been affected.

So has business at Radio Communication, the largest paging company in Laredo. The firm - which supplies pages to most federal workers in the area, state and local law enforcement, and people waiting for organ transplants - is battling a company in Nuevo Laredo over illegally sharing its radio frequency. Service manager Rick Surratt estimates that one-quarter of the 5,000 pages sent each hour don't arrive because of this interference.

If this sounds like a case for the Federal Communications Commission, think again. The agency has taken limited action. Mr. Dovalina believes that's because Laredo is a border city, a place unto itself expected to fend for itself. But even if the FCC tried to stop the wireless renegades, he says, inspectors couldn't keep up with the number of complaints.

Indeed, the problem is huge. All over these cities, antennas sprout from rooftops and out windows. Cables run from buildings like spider webs, and towers line the horizon like quills on a porcupine's back.

"If you get up on any tall building in Laredo and look across the river at all the antennas popping up..., you will understand the problem," Dovalina says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.